How long have you been teaching at UMass, and what brought you to the University?
I started teaching here in 1994 when my wife Jenny Spencer was hired as an Assistant Professor in the English Department. Lee Edwards, the Dean of Humanities and Fine Arts, and a Languages Review Committee had just conducted a study of the Translation Center and recommended either closing the Center (it was losing money at the time), or hiring a new Director and make it self-sustaining. Fortunately, they chose the latter, and I came aboard. I have a double role at the university: half-time Professor of Comparative Literature, and half-time Director of the Translation Center. I like the synergy of the combination.
What is your educational background and focus?
I have BA in English from Kenyon College, did graduate work in German Studies at the Free University of Berlin, and completed my PhD in Comparative Literature at Vanderbilt University (1990), where I did my dissertation on comparative translation studies. My thesis advisor Hans Schulz, one of the pioneers of Comparative Literature in the United States, wanted me to write on reception theory, with maybe a chapter on translation, as he thought that I would not be able to find a job in translation. While I did a massive amount of work on reception theory, including compiling a large annotated bibliography on the American Reception of German Language Literature, I am glad I stuck with translation, despite the fact that at the time the field was just emerging. Today my books have been translated into many languages, including Italian, Bulgarian, Portuguese, Persian, and Arabic; I am invited to speak around the world and serve on the editorial board of a number of distinguished international journals. The focus on translation has proven very timely.
Which languages have you studied? Which ones are you comfortable translating?
I am a German Studies scholar by training, so I work in Germanic languages, which for me include German, Dutch, English, and Old English. I really only translate from contemporary German to English, usually poetry, fiction, and some criticism. I also have some Spanish, French, and Portuguese, which I really do not translate, but can provide basic quality control when proofreading. I actually spend a lot more time proofreading and assessing translations than translating today. I have tried to learn some Chinese in my old age, but I have finding the way quite difficult.
What are your responsibilities as director of the Translation Center?
The Translation Center has been a great success story. When I started in 1994, it was just a small Center doing translations in a few languages just for local individuals and clients, generating a net income of $2000-$5000 per year. I revamped it completely, hiring a new pool of translators, offering translation services in the languages most needed in the Commonwealth, including Spanish and Portuguese, the two most needed languages (and languages offered at UMass), but also languages in high demand, but not taught at this university, such as Vietnamese and Haitian Kryol. We now offer translation and interpreting services in over 80 languages at the Center. I also have acquired and trained translators in a whole new range of technologies that improve quality and speed that make us much more competitive in the open market. As Director, I wear many hats: I continue to recruit and train translators, supervise graduate research assistants, supervise the staff, improve quality-control procedures, assess and implement new technological tools, deal with client requests, maintain the website, liaison with the university, and provide economic outreach. The success of the Translation Center makes the MA in Translation Studies Program quite attractive to the top translation students and scholars nationally and internationally.
You recently returned from a conference in Europe – what was your role?
I just got back from a conference in Belgium called “The Construction of Translation Studies” sponsored by Lessius University College in Antwerp, where my work was the main topic of the conference. It was a real honor and a little scary. I have given many keynotes in the past, but have never had a whole conference devoted to my work. In 2008 I published a book called Translation and Identity in the Americas (Routledge), which seems to have caused quite a stir in the field. I suggest that translation is less something that happens between two different cultures and more something that is constitutive of those very cultures. In short, a redefinition of the field. This idea seems to trouble traditional translation scholars (dare I say European?), who hold to the idea that translation imports or exports texts into or from separate and distinct cultures. Several European scholars took great issue with my approach, and much of the conference consisted in roasting Edwin. I was allowed to give two keynotes at the conference as well as respond to the other papers, so I hope I held my own. And in fact, several papers later in the day, from scholars from Spain, South Africa, and Finland, were much more receptive to my ideas. While in Belgium, I also gave a lecture at the CETRA program in Leuven/Brussels, one of the leading translation studies programs in the world, and gave a keynote talk at an Anglo-American studies conference also in Antwerp, thus giving four talks in five days..
What are you currently working on?
As many scholars at UMass, I am working on several projects at once. The papers from the above conference have been proposed for a special issue of the journal Translation and Interpreting Studies (TIS), so I am rewriting my talks into one lengthy article for the journal. I am preparing a talk for an upcoming American Translation and Interpreting Studies (ATISA) conference in New York at NYU, where I am speaking on the “Micro-sociological turn in Translation Studies.” Later this semester I am off to Brazil, where my book is being translated into Portuguese. I will speak at the V Ibero-American Congress of Translation and Interpreting (CIATI) and help launch my book. Next semester I will be in China speaking at a special conference on translation theory held by Lingnan University in Hong Kong and Tsinghua University in Beijing. I have promised the editor of Translation and Interpreting Studies that I would edit a special volume on Comparative Literature and Translation; this year translation was the presidential theme at both the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA) conference in Boston and the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Philadelphia, so there is currently much interest in the topic in humanities programs in the United States. I have also started a small monograph on Translation and Trauma, looking primarily at post-9/11 translation in the United States, and another publisher is asking for a book of collected essays. Thus I keep very busy.
What are your goals for the future of the Translation Center?
More recent goals of the Translation Center include integrating the Center better in the academic mission of the university, so that it serves as more than an economic engine. While we have in the past been able to generate funds for several graduate student scholarships from the income of the Center, learning opportunities abound. The merger of the different language departments into the Language, Literatures, and Cultures (LLC) Department has helped. Translation serves as an inter-discipline that cuts across, or better said, bridges all the units—Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, German, Scandinavian, Chinese, and Japanese. Julie Hayes, who is Chair of LLC, is also a distinguished translation studies scholar and has been very helpful. We have visions of growing the MA in Translation Studies, accepting more out of state and international students, expanding our course offerings to include more technology and computer-aided translation learning, and exploring ways to provide more internships and hands-on learning opportunities.
What suggestions do you have for students who plan to study Comparative Literature?
Comparative Literature is an exciting field that allows students to continue their studies in two or more languages simultaneously and not have to specialize in just one language. The comparative perspective allows students to gain insight into linguistic and cultural particulars of both languages, similar to the way that traveling abroad allows you to gain insight into your own culture as well as the one you are experiencing during the trip. Comparative Literature also allows students to combine different disciplines, such as literature and music, philosophy, or even medicine and law. Students can more or less create their own program of study, depending upon their interests. Translation, one of the fastest growing subfields of comparative literature, is just one of the many options that students can choose—other tracks include film and media studies, the graphic novel, theatre, music, dance, as well as more traditional paths in fiction and poetry. We also find that most of our graduates obtain valuable jobs or create new avenues of study upon graduation, showing how language graduates can contribute to educational, economic, and cultural wellbeing.
Conference on The Construction of Translation Studies
My book Translation and Identity in the Americas
CETRA Program in Translation Studies
Translation and Interpreting Studies
V Ibero-American Congress of Translation and Interpreting (CIATI)
American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA)
Modern Language Association (MLA)