Middlebury students tried their hand at simultaneous interpretation in a booth at the Mahaney Center for the Arts,
You’re translating right now. We do it all the time, unconsciously—from visual to oral, from one person’s sensibilities to another’s. Then there are those who do it professionally, across cultures and eras. Without them treaties couldn’t be negotiated, business would hit bottlenecks, and great literature would be fettered to an author’s language.
This year, Middlebury’s Clifford Symposium focused on that complex world of translation and translators. “Translation in A Global Community: Theory and Practice” put a new twist on the fall tradition of the Clifford Symposium by bringing together faculty both from Middlebury’s language programs and from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, which is known worldwide for its translation and interpretation programs. Keynote speaker Professor David Bellos, director of Princeton’s Program in Translation and Intercultural Communication, acknowledged the particular suitability of the topic by noting he was speaking from “the beating heart of language teaching in North America.”
Before Bellos began his talk, audience members were offered headphones to listen to his address interpreted in Chinese—two Monterey graduates were visible onstage in a professional interpretation booth, poised to do the job for both Middlebury and Monterey listeners. The booth and the varied interpreters within were a feature of the three-day symposium, and students conversant in other languages were invited to try their hand interpreting at a special Friday morning session (see video).
Bellos, an Englishman who also teaches French and comparative literature at Princeton, and who won the first Man Booker International Prize for translation in 2005, gave an often-humorous account of the judgment calls good translators must make for the sake of an author, a work, and readers. In the course of translating Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret detective novelettes from French to English, Bellos knew he wanted to keep the page-turning dynamics of the originals while helping current readers move smoothly through some of the extinct conventions of the author’s 1931 France. For example, Simenon’s view of Eastern Europe approximated the famous 1976 New Yorker cover “View of the World from Ninth Avenue,” in which the Pacific Ocean washes onto Kansas, about two blocks from New Jersey. This isolationism was common in Simenon’s France; with today’s travel and communication, conflating Latvia and Lithuania would be considered ignorant, and Detective Maigret was not. Likewise, the foods, fabrics, technologies, and police hierarchies have changed. Bellos explained, “A translation is an invention of something. There’s no one right solution. But you have to be consistent.” Using experience, an ear for tone, and sources such as old French dictionaries and trademark records to make his decisions, Bellos still expects e-mails from “persnickety readers,” and said, “If I get attacked for a clumsy translation, at least I’d have a learned answer.”
Translation involves art, Bellos suggested, and other sessions throughout the symposium looked at additional angles: whether everything is translatable, whether translation is a political act, and how interested students could find careers using their language skills. For those who choose to follow that path, Kawashima Professor of Japanese Studies Stephen Snyder, one of the symposium’s organizers, shared his view: “Translation is one of the fundamental underpinnings of [global relations], to think about how languages are learned, to think about who provides communication between cultural spheres.”
The annual Clifford Symposium is named after College Professor of History Emeritus Nicholas R. Clifford, who taught history at the college from 1966 to 1993 and who in his many years as a member of the faculty and administration cultivated critical inquiry.