Translation is everywhere, hiding in plain sight. Traditions are shaped by translations of canonical texts, wars launched on the basis of mistranslations, disciplines advanced through conceptual translation, relationships negotiated through constant translations across difference. In this broad sense, translation is at work in all human practices, a hidden catalyst of history and culture. Translation is also an explicit practice in its own right, a creative and scholarly craft with a long, reflective history. Too often, though, translation is treated as a technical skill, a mere auxiliary to the process of creation, the work of criticism, and the life of culture.

Over the last decade, the tide has turned. It may have taken the events of September, 2011 to awaken the United States to its urgent need for qualified linguists with cross-cultural competencies. And the academy seems ready to provide this new generation of translators, interpreters, and linguists. We see not only the creation of translation programs but also a general reevaluation of the importance of translation studies. Full integration of this critical interdisciplinary field into the university curriculum promises to revitalize teaching and research. Not only do we teach many texts in translation, but also our reading of every text is deeply affected by a complex history of reception, adaptation, and re-translation. Translation studies draws together the diverse disciplines that study language and culture, history and politics, philosophy and religion. Translation also helps establish links between the humanities and the social and natural sciences.

Translation is central to the human condition and to those disciplines that explore our humanity. This is the premise of “The Centrality of Translation to the Humanities: New Interdisciplinary Scholarship,” a three-week institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) for twenty-five college and university faculty (including three doctoral students). With a faculty comprising some of the world’s foremost translation scholars and practitioners, we will explore the idea that translation is no mere searching for lexical equivalents, but a profound act which builds bridges across times and cultures, opening new possibilities for texts and their readers. After an introduction to translation theory and practice, we will work through four diverse case studies, each designed to foreground the historical importance, philosophical depth, political perils, and poetic richness of translation.

The introduction to translation studies will be led by Elizabeth Lowe, Chris Higgins, and Joyce Tolliver. First, Elizabeth will lead discussion on the history of translation and its uncertain place in the contemporary research university. Then, Chris will introduce some major themes in the philosophy of translation, drawing on thinkers such as Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Hans-Georg Gadamer to show the limits of the common epistemological framing of translation as a more or less accurate reproduction of an original. Finally, Joyce will open up discussion of the poetic and political dimensions, exploring translation as a craft, as an ethical stance, and as a fraught intercultural power-laden dynamic.

The first case, led by Gregory Rabassa and Suzanne Jill Levine, concerns the rise of a 20th century, inter-American literature, sparked by dialogues between U.S. and Latin American writers and by a series of decisive English translations which generated an expanded reading public and dynamic intercultural space. Our investigation of this famous “boom” in Latin American literature will focus on Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges. García Márquez once quipped that Rabassa’s One Hundred Years of Solitude was better than his own Cien Años de Soledad, and this curious productivity of translation was exactly the sort of puzzle Borges loved to explore in his ficciones.

The second case takes us from secular to sacred literature, or does it? David Rosenberg will lead participants to look at the Hebrew Bible as a text whose sacred and secular dimensions have been shaped and occluded by a series of fateful translations and amendations. For the Bible case study, he will be joined by Valerie Hotchkiss who will shift our focus to the further transformation of the Judeo-Christian scriptures in the powerful cultural event that was the King James translation. The Bible, like no other text, brings out the historical and political stakes of translation, revealing the complex interplay of tradition and translation.

If the second case probes the boundary between the secular and the sacred, the third case investigates the borderlands between the humanities and the sciences. As it turns out, this contested border runs right through each of the modern social sciences. Indeed, the very term “social science” can be seen as the victory of a particular translation and interpretation of those disciplines the Germans call Geisteswissenschaften, rigorous inquiries into human culture, values, and spirit. We pick up the story as 20th c. psychology and psychiatry uncritically assimilates, only later to reflexively expel, the radical philosophical-anthropological insights of Sigmund Freud. As it turns out, translation is at the center of this century-long case of intellectual indigestion. Led by Adam Phillips, we examine how the reception of psychoanalysis was shaped by the translation of Freud’s humane, belle-lettristic German prose into a pseudo-scientific English.

With the final case, we return to literary translation, turning from prose to poetry. Focusing on the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, we consider the proposition that poetry demands a form of close reading that is itself a form of translation. Conversely, we could say that far from providing a pale replica, a careful process of translation offers us a model of what it means to be responsive to the fullness of meaning found in successful poetry. Our study of Rilke in translation is led by William Gass and Rainer Schulte, who will help us investigate, at the close scale of the poetic line, the fruitful intermingling of reading and writing, creation and criticism, translation and interpretation.

The diversity of these cases is intentional, allowing us to track key issues in translation across historical and geographical boundaries and provide multiple points of access to this interdisciplinary investigation. This richness of detail will only increase as the summer scholars bring their own areas of interest into the conversation. In addition to working through these four cases together, each summer scholar will work up an additional case examining questions of translation in the context of his or her own teaching and scholarship.

The institute is meant to be dialogical throughout. Seminar sessions will feature discussion of texts. Guest faculty will not only lead their own seminars but also participate in panel discussions with one another. Summer scholars will share work in progress within their working groups and present their cases at the conclusion of the Institute. Through these conversations and cases, we will investigate together the nature of translation, its dynamic role in human affairs, and its central place in the humanities.