Parallel Publications: Translation Banks, Little Magazines, Online Venues
Many scholars of East Asian Studies who are preparing dissertations based on archival research encounter, sooner rather than later, occasions for translation. Historians, political scientists, and literature scholars who are publishing outside their research language can rarely depend on prior work—Western-language communities simply have not translated a sufficient amount of material to allow for dissertations and monographs that exclusively cite previously completed translations. Some projects only require the scholar to summarize a few documents, or translate a sentence or two. Others translate so copiously that they serve as anthologies—for instance, one senses that Michelle Yeh’s 1991 monograph Modern Chinese Poetry: Theory and Practice Since 1917 required a substantial portion of the work that would turn into her 1994 Anthology of Modern Chinese Poetry. This Talking Shop piece will give some options writers might consider, both during dissertation research and after, to make as much as possible out of the contribution that translation represents—even for those who don’t consider translation a stand-alone part of their intellectual or academic profile.
Because I study literature in part as a communication process between readers and writers, I tend to work backwards when organizing my translation activities. I try to answer the following question first: who are the potential audiences for translations drawn from the kind of research I do? For me, the answer is mainly people who read literature, especially poetry, and sure enough there are ample, albeit non-paying, venues for translated literature, especially in translation-only journals like Asymptote, Circumference,the Center for Translation’s Two Lines, Princeton’s Inventory, or Iowa’s Exchanges. My estimation is subjective, but in each of these publications, Asian languages appear vastly underrepresented, and many editors have an explicit desire to increase the global balance of their magazine.There are also language-specific journals that engage in translation, such as Renditions, Pathlight, or the Kyoto Journal. Magazines can appear and disappear quickly: in the past four years, we’ve seen closure or hiatus at Peregrine, Cerise Press, and Full Tilt. It is always worth taking a fresh look at a magazine before submitting—sometimes websites outlast editorial boards and magazine funding, and most magazines try to spell out what they’re looking for on their websites (one practical wrinkle is that unlike scholarly journals, literary magazines often consider submissions that are simultaneously being submitted elsewhere). Really, though, almost every literary magazine accepts translations, and many general-interest literary magazines seek them out, from the humblest e-zine to the Paris Review. Translators of poetry, fiction, and essays have a broad set of options.
Literary audiences, however, are not the only people who read translations. A number of websites and journals feature non-literary, translated material. My list here is intended to demonstrate the breadth of opportunity, rather than to be comprehensive, and is limited to the field with which I’m most familiar, 20th-century China studies: Danwei translates and summarizes news about the PRC media scene; chinaSMACK focuses on the translation of internet commentary and the netizen zeitgeist; the China Heritage Quarterly often featuring significant new translations of the scholarly and historical. Some individuals translate news, opinion writing, and research-related work on their own blogs: Roland Soong was an early innovator in this vein, and Bill Bishop’s newsletter, with its mix of curation and translation, has 16,000 subscribers. It is a rare full-time dissertator who could translate at the volume and speed necessary to keep abreast of the news for long enough to accumulate such sway, but these online figures and groups have connected with (and helped to create) substantial audiences, which can also be reached by scholars through group and individual blogs, guest posts, and social media.
It is ultimately up to the individual scholar, though, to decide how and to whom they want their translations to speak, and the ease of publication on the Internet gives us all the opportunity to create audiences that do not yet exist—as can be seen in Martin Winter’s unique Chinese/English/German translation blog. With an audience in mind, even if abstract or novel, it becomes possible for scholars to double-read the subjects of their research, to ask not only does this text affect my critical argument but also who might like to read this text? In situations when that answer includes people who read in translation, I copy the original, plus any flash translations or commentary I’ve already generated, into a file exclusively set aside for translation work. My research can then move past the text at hand, with the piece still there for me to pick up or pursue later as a translation. I find myself surprised at how often I move back and forth between the two parallel threads: in some ways, the poems and prose in my translation file are the pieces I end up understanding best, and have the strongest connection with. This leads me to move a certain number of translation projects into my research, as well as moving research texts into my translation file.
That connection is one of the best reasons to engage in translation alongside research. Translation requires intimate interpretation; it prevents the kind of selective blindness that excerpts can create; it rewards active participation in a text. Elements we may overlook—say, the tone of a passage in a dynastic history, or the formality of the diction of a heavily plotted short story—are decisions necessary to the production of a translation, and it’s rare that I finish a piece I regret having translated, even if I never manage to secure its publication. Translation isn’t the only way to read, and it is a highly specialized, intercultural way to read, but it is a chance to linger over a text, inhabit it, and make certain concrete decisions about how it sounds, how it feels, and what it means.
Perhaps the most substantial reason against engaging in translation for publication during one’s dissertation process is the consistent devaluation of translation in the discipline of Asian Studies. Outside formally delineated translation programs, few departments give incentives to translation work that are equal to the incentives provided to authors of peer-reviewed, English-language research, and copyright issues surrounding the dissertation process can provide measurable (although surmountable) complications to basing a dissertation on substantial amounts of translation. More concretely, it doesn’t matter (to the academy) how many translations you have published if you don’t get your dissertation finished in the first place. But these institutional challenges exist for us to subvert and ignore, and profit in doing so: our moment in history is one in which distant cultures and distant phenomena are increasingly relevant, and one in which our academic institutions tend strongly towards a static, putatively transparent interoperability of European languages. To engage in translation even though there is little profit in it is to counter that dominant, temporary trend; it is also to steal time from the metricized, atomized hierarchies of the academy and apply it towards the social and political goals through which many of us justify our work in the first place.
These idealist goals—which in my case involve the kind of intercultural understanding upon which trust and honest exchange can be based—are obviously unfinished, as is the work to translate important texts from Asian languages. If you know of an outlet that publishes translations (of any kind, from any Asian language), or even if you host or frequent a blog that welcomes the contribution of translations, please leave a comment and a link below.
Assistant Professor of Chinese Literature and Culture
Department of Asian Studies
Image: Left ear of Leshan Great Buddha. Photo by Nick Admussen