井の中の蛙

10/14/2004

Translation Prize and Gatekeeper Issues

Filed under: — Jonathan Dresner @ 2:13 am

A colleague of mine, Prof. Larry Rogers, just won the 2004 Keene Center translation award for his book of translations of modern stories about Tokyo neighborhoods. I haven’t read it, so I can’t comment substantively (though I want to look at it as a possible text for next year’s 20th century Japan course), but colleagues who have read it praised it highly, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

I’d almost forgotten such prizes exist, though, and that got me thinking. We live in a world of unprecedented transparency: it’s almost as easy to follow Japanese news in English as in Japanese, for example, and rough machine translation of Western languages is now so commonplace that it’s a free function of Google. I know language skills are still important — the realization three years ago that we had a desperate need for Arabic, Persian, Farsi, and other Central Asian and Middle Eastern languages still hangs over us — and translators (some of my best friends….) still make a pretty good living, apparently.

There are still gatekeepers, and I’m one of them, but it seems like our role is shifting from producing information to interpreting it. I know that it has never been purely one or the other: any really good historical research on Japan is still going to include materials which have never really been addressed in English before (really great historical research includes materials never dealt with in Japanese, either), and the quality of primary source translations is still one of the hallmarks of excellent scholarship. Translation, even paid technical translation, is still a kind of interpretation, and there is always a selective principle involved.

Perhaps what I’m experiencing is the widening of the gate: the gatekeepers still exist — may always exist — but there are many more of us. Our individual authority is greatly diminished by the success of our scholarly predecessors and parallel migrations of people, hobbies, money, goods and services. This is a very good thing: one of the reasons I went into this field was to rectify the paucity of understanding of Japanese history (and contemporary issues, though I’m less interested in those as I’ve become more an historian than a Japan-hand). The job is not done, not by a long, long shot, but the resources available are much richer and denser and higher quality than existed when I started this journey two decades ago.

Think about it: Columbia University has an academic unit named after one of the great translators and interpreters of Japan, a pioneer in the field but someone who is still publishing. The award this year went to a scholar from a fourth-tier school (my own, thank you very much), when thirty years ago fourth-tier schools hardly had Asianists, much less really good Japanese literary scholars. That reminds me of a talk I heard over the summer by AAS President Mary Elizabeth Berry:

Berry’s talk was not the traditional AAS President’s address, erudite and scholarly. It was a rallying cry for Asian studies scholars to envision an academy in which Asian studies faculty’s share of the total resources was roughly proportional to the scale and importance of Asia in the world. She drew stark contrasts with European (particularly French and British) studies, but was careful to point out that we should try to avoid making it a fight over shrinking resources, but a redirection and expansion of the curriculum in more meaningful directions. We have, she argued, gone from nearly nothing to our present state — kind of marginal, but at least represented — in three decades or so, and we should consider the next stage — transition to properly proportional representation — a multi-decade process. We also need to make Asia more of a mainstream subject: whereas now European studies are considered essential background for any well-rounded scholar, Asian studies are an extra. But it’s impossible to do meaningful comparative, or even narrowly analytical work, if your only models are European/American.

We do need high quality translations, and prizes to highlight the work we do. We have come so far, but we are still so far from where we ought to be. We are still gatekeepers, and that is part of the problem: the gate is still there, still relatively narrow.

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