Interlitq: What have been the most significant moments of your career to date?
Everything that I have become has happened randomly. There was never a career plan. As a child, I lived in various countries and so acquired several languages by osmosis. As a student I was offered a place on a new, experimental Joint Honours degree which enabled me to explore connections across cultures. As a young academic I met, at my very first conference, two groups of international academics who would shape my intellectual development. As a more senior academic, my work took off after the end of the Cold War and China opening up to the West in the 1990s. As a woman, I was promoted later than some male colleagues, but became the first woman professor in the Arts at the University of Warwick, then the first woman Pro-Vice-Chancellor in 1997 because the university wanted a new, less conservative image to fit with the newly elected Blair government. My election to a Fellowship of the Institute of Linguists in 2000 was an unexpected honour, as was my election to a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Literature in 2007 and to the Academia Europea in 2006 .My four children, born between 1972 and 1989 keep me in touch with ever changing trends in popular culture. None of this was planned in any way, but I have been able to respond to windows of opportunity that opened up unexpectedly.
Interlitq: Where are you now professionally and intellectually?
I retired from full-time academia in 2009, after serving 10 years as Pro-Vice-Chancellor, during which time I managed a major AHRC grant on global news translation. Since then I have held a part-time Chair in Comparative Literature at the University of Warwick, where I shall become Emerita in October 2016. I also hold a part-time Chair in Comparative Literature at the University of Glasgow.
In 2015 I was elected President of the British Comparative Literature Association, a great personal honour, particularly since the first conference I ever attended in 1975 was the founding event of that association. I travel a great deal,acting as external examiner, giving lectures, running workshops and working with international funding councils. In the last 5 years I have chaired or served on various panels evaluating international research or universities in different countries, and have also served as judge of major international literary prizes, including the IMPAC Dublin prize.
My research involves exploring multiple aspects of the movement of texts across cultures. I work very broadly in fields loosely defined as translation studies, comparative and world literature and theatre studies. Forthcoming essays deal with travel writing, international detective fiction, cultural memory, translation and creativity. I have developed a style of writing that is easily accessible to readers and I try to make complex theories seem understandable . I believe strongly in accessibility and have never wanted to write for a small in-group. I am increasingly blurring the lines between creative and academic writing, and this enables me to reach out to non-specialist audiences and to the educated general public.I do a lot of journalism as well.
I have been blessed with an ability to read at high speed. Every year I have a kind of personal reading programme that includes new works, old works I never managed to read ,the works of 1 poet, and some rereading. Last year I reread Joyce’s Ulysses alongside The Odyssey, my poet was Rilke in a bilingual edition, I read a lot of translated detective novels for an essay I was writing, I discovered Elsa Ferrante and read the 4 books of her Neapolitan series and I read an unabridged version of Moby Dick for the first time. I have started this year reading the political novels of Anthony Trollope, a writer I never read before. Obviously I read new theoretical and critical works all the time, and my son, who is studying neolithic Scottish archaeology up in the Orkney islands keeps giving me reading advice in his field too. I am lucky enough to be able to read comfortably in 5 languages and with a dictionary in a few more.
This multifaceted reading feeds directly into my writing.
Interlitq: How did you come to be one of the founders of Translation Studies?
As mentioned already, in 1975 I met two groups of people who became life-long friends and collaborators. Having spent so much of my life in Italy, I was always drawn to Italian colleagues and I met Vita Fortunati, Giovanna Franci and Mariangela Tempera, feminist literary scholars from Bologna. Over the years, we collaborated on events at the Bologna Women’s Centre, at Mariangela’s annual Shakespeare festival, at creative writing and translation events. In the late 1980s Vita began managing a large grant from the European Union for research into comparative literature, COTEPRA, followed by grants for ACUME 1, an international project on cultural memory and ACUME 2, on literature and science. I chaired one of the groups in all these projects which ran until well into the C21st. Through these women, two of whom are sadly no longer with us, I expanded and developed academic links across Europe in comparative literature, women’s writing and travel writing in particular. Vita and I remain close friends , as are our children and grandchildren.
At the same conference I met a group of exciting young men: Itamar Even-Zohar, Jose Lambert, Gideon Toury, James Holmes and Andre Lefevere, angry about what they saw as complacency in comparative literature and refusal of both literary studies and linguistics to attach value to the study and practice of translation. I felt that I had finally met kindred spirits; over the next couple of years we met as a group in Belgium and tried to produce a manifesto for a new field which, following James Holmes, we called Translation Studies.
In 1980 I published a book entitled Translation Studies, which sought to introduce the field to a wider readership. I persuaded the late, great Terence Hawkes to include my book in a series he had started to edit for Methuen ( then transferred to Routledge) designed to introduce new trends in literary and cultural studies. The New Accents series was controversial and revolutionary, because it shook up the British academic establishment by introducing such much-contested fields as Marxist criticism, structuralism and semiotics, feminist theory, post-colonial theory, postmodernism, deconstruction, reception theory,cultural materialism- and translation studies. It is difficult today to realise the animosity towards these new trends in Britain in the 1980s, but by the 1990s a new generation had swept the old resistance aside. My book was expanded and reprinted in 1991, then in 2002 and most recently the 4th edition came out in 2014. I have no doubt that by publishing in a series that became an international success, my book reached a much wider audience than that constituted by translation studies researchers only.
Sales of the book grew exponentially. It was translated into several languages and became- and remains- a standard introduction to the field, easily accessible to students. Andre Lefevere and I then began editing a series of books on translation for Routledge, and some of the leading scholars today including Lawrence Venuti, Sherry Simon, Edwin Gentzler, Michael Cronin, Andrew Benjamin, Harish Trivedi and many others wrote for us. After Andre’s untimely death in 1996, the series transferred to Multilingual Matters, with myself and Edwin Gentzler as editors, and we brought out over two dozen titles until deciding to call it a day in 2008. I remain committed to both publishers, and in 1998 Multilingual Matters published the book Andre and I co-wrote, Constructing Cultures, and 2011 they also published a collection of my short pieces on translation, Reflections on Translation. Harish Trivedi and I co-edited a book for Routledge in 1999, Postcolonial Translation:Theory and Practice, and Routledge also published a monograph by Esperance Bielsa and myself, Global News Translation in 2009. Forthcoming is a collection of essays I am editing on World Literature and Translation.
Interlitq: Why has interest in translation grown so rapidly?
All socio-political evens have epistemological consequences. In the early 199os, the end of the Cold War changed the world as millions more people became able to travel, while the decision of China to open to the West and the end of apartheid in South Africa also had global consequences. If we add to that the technological revolution and the advent of the internet, we see international communication issues coming to centre stage. Translation is an inevitable part of such communication.
What none of us ever anticipated back in the late 1970s was that the field we were trying to invent should have become a global phenomenon in its own right. There was scant interest in the 1980s, then growing interest through the 1990s but the surge of interest in the field is a C21st phenomenon. Nevertheless, Translation Studies has never taken off in the USA to the same extent as it has in Canada, Europe, China, India, and the rest of the English-speaking world. I’m not really sure why this should be the case, perhaps it is simply that the old American assimiliationist model is still operating on some level? Or it may be that there is more interest in the USA in cultural translation as it has developed within postcolonial thinking, following Homi Bhabha, that is, as a metaphor for the state of in betweenness in which so many millions of people find themselves today.
Interlitq: Where is Translation Studies today?
I have to confess to some disappointment here. There are some brilliant people around, I regularly read fascinating doctoral dissertations by young people and essays submitted to various journals or funding bodies,but there is a sense of the field turning in on itself somewhat. This may be a reaction against ‘cultural translation’, which evades dealing with interlingual transfer and keeps discussion of translation on a metaphorical level, but I sometimes have a sense of people defining themselves as translation scholars and then talking to one another within a translation studies discourse. Being a big fish in a small pond is the ambition of people who don’t want to reach out and take risks.
Some of the most interesting work today in my view is practice-based, and here I would include the exciting research into the translation of ancient texts, into collaborative theatre translation, also research into the multiple agencies involved in the production of translations ( the role of patrons, editors, publishers etc.), research into news translation, audiovisual translation and translation in advertising. Much of the research into these fields is coming not only from within translation studies but from other disciplines. I am also encouraged by the rapprochement between comparative literature and world literature and translation studies, which hopefully will revitalize these three inter-related fields.
It is also the case that slowly translation is starting to acquire a higher status,which is long overdue in the English-speaking world. When I began my academic career I was told that translations did not count on one’s cv, and I fought for years to have translations along with creative writing recognised in my university as criteria for tenure and promotion. Eventually I won that battle, but it is still going on in many other institutions, unfortunately. The idea that creative writing and translation somehow do not involve ‘research’ is a prejudice that lingers on.
Interlitq: How did you come to be interested in translation?
As a child, taken from country to country, I had the advantage of having a father who believed it was important to know about the local language and culture. He sent me to local schools and from a very early age I realised that languages were different: I could express myself differently according to which language I was using, to the extent that topics of conversation were not the same. By attending local schools I never had a monocultural perspective on history either, which was a great advantage. At university, I agreed to be a guinea pig for a new degree programme in English and Italian, which involved taking 2 degrees over a 4 year period ( in the UK degrees are 3 years only). At the end of my 4th year I sat 15 finals papers and wrote a dissertation. The 2 degrees were taught completely separately and there seemed to be no communication between departments. I wrote my dissertation on James Joyce and Italo Svevo, and on one memorable day I sat a Shakespeare paper in the morning and a Dante paper in the afternoon.
Both degrees were heavily philological, which I enjoyed and have kept up my Anglo-Saxon to this day. I also studied Latin through the first 2 years, and with hindsight I can say that the Latin and Anglo-Saxon were the 2 most useful subjects I ever studies because they gave me such a strong base on which to construct my awareness of other languages. the training from my first degree was very valuable, though it was brutal, to say the least. When studying an author, we were simply told to read ‘everything’. There was no question of selected texts. Looking back, I don’t know how I coped, but I did and I was awarded 2 First class degrees and set off back to Rome at the age of 21 to teach Early English Literature and British Culture at the University of Rome, La Sapienza.
Interlitq: Do you consider rootlessness to be a blessing or a curse?
When I came to England in my teens I felt foreign and unhappy. I couldn’t wait to leave. But after a few years teaching in Italy, I felt I did not belong there either. I returned to England, hoping to make my living as a writer (I tried this twice and failed each time) and then took up a Lectureship at the University of Lancaster where I taught the unlikely combination of Anglo-Saxon, Early Middle English and Creative Writing. At Lancaster I met my first husband, Philip McGuire, an American Shakespeare scholar, over on a Fulbright. We married, moved to the US where I thought I might resolve my rootlessness. Though we divorced, we have a daughter and remain good friends. What I learned in the American years was that I am a very much a European, attached to certain kinds of landscapes, traditions and ancient history.
It was while on a British Academy fellowship to Prague that I came to see that the nagging sense of not-belonging had become a huge advantage, because it has enabled me to integrate quickly into new societies and to read signs. In the UK I can see all the nuances of the complex and destructive class system, but I do not feel any of it emotionally, unlike friends who are still plagued by the need to define themselves as belonging to one class or another. When I read Eva Hoffman’s book, Lost in Translation, I related to it immediately. Meeting, I told her that the section in which she writes about not having a shared childhood with anyone else was something I could relate to completely.
During the 1990s I did a lot of work for the British Council travelling in India, China, Japan, Central Asia, Indonesia, Brazil and Latin America, lecturing and running workshops on British Cultural Studies and Translation Studies. In many places I built networks, and contacts have continued. I feel privileged to have been able to meet so many interesting people in so many places and to have established relationships.
Interlitq: What is your greatest achievement?
When first asked this question, I replied unhesitatingly: ‘I think my 4 children like me and so do their friends’. That remains my greatest personal achievement, though I would now add the word ‘grandchildren’. My greatest academic achievement has been to establish and maintain international networks, which include contacts with former students around the world. Those networks have sustained me in difficult times, and the advent of email was a godsend because it enabled me to stay more closely in touch with people with whom I enjoy professional and personal relations.
Interlitq: What does the future hold?
Though I fear Translation Studies as a field is treading water right now, there are some bright younger people coming up fast. Comparative Literature has re-invigorated itself and there is a lot happening under the aegis of World Literature. Indeed, it could be argued that the growth of Translation Studies has led to diversification on a vast scale, and that what is happening now in comp.lit and in World lit. is what we were proposing when we devised Translation Studies 40 years ago: the study of how texts move across time and space and cultural context is intimately linked to translation, and when we talk about translation we need to understand the textual strategies as well as the broader picture. Translation is never an innocent activity, it is an act of inter-cultural and inter-linguistic negotiation. The context in which the source text came into being, the context in which the translator works and the context in which readers respond to that translation are part of a complex equation that involved various agencies.
As for what the future holds for me, more of the same is the only answer possible.
Susan Bassnett, University of Warwick, University of Glasgow
by Lara Alcantara-Lansberg
The Groves of Academe