Finding Value in Translation

About a month ago, I reviewed a  conference I had just attended in Beijing. It was a great experience and made me consider the state of intellectual exchange between China and the U.S. I don’t think it is a stretch to say that American scholars general exert more influence in China than their Chinese peers do in the U.S., which leaves me feeling uneasy, both personally and professionally. In this post I am going to reflect not so much on why this is problematic or everything that would need to be done to address it. Instead, I want to focus on a very simple way that graduate students might go about responding to this problem and why we might not.
One of the simplest reasons for imbalance in academic exchange is that a far greater percentage of students in China are familiar with English than students in the U.S. are with Chinese. This obviously isn’t a problem as far as American graduate students focusing on China are concerned, but we are a distinct minority relative to the number of our peers studying other parts of the world. It is highly common for a class on Chinese history to have graduate students who are not specializing in China. In the absence of available translations, it is simply unfeasible to assign significant amounts of Chinese-language materials to a class of students with varying degrees of proficiency. And to whatever extent this is true of scholarship about China, it is exponentially more true of Chinese-language scholarship about other parts of the world.
You may or may not think this is an obvious problem. At the very least, the importance of reading Chinese-language scholarship about China should be plain. The case may be harder to make for work in Chinese about, for example, U.S. history. American historians of China like myself, though, are exactly the people who should see the value in reading foreign scholarship about one’s own country – since we have to make the case, at least to ourselves, that we have something to add to the field of Chinese history despite being outsiders. Often, we claim that being an outsider has certain advantages and allows a more objective perspective. This should be no less true in the case of foreigners studying American history.
The obvious solution is for academics to undertake more translation of foreign scholarship (and primary sources). As young scholars in the process of learning from and setting out to change existing views within the field (not to mention honing language skills) there is a case to be made that graduate students should play an important role in this task. And yet, this responsibility/opportunity feels marginal at best in the broader scope of what graduate students are expected and trained to do. Of course we learn that consulting Chinese scholarship is crucial to our own research, but how often do we think about helping others read this scholarship for themselves would affect the field more broadly?
There are two sides to this dilemma. First, there is the fact that graduate students already feel overburdened with the variety of expectations we face, including the not insignificant task of producing research of our own in the form of a dissertation (not to mention the article length publications that are increasingly becoming necessary to get even a first job after graduating). Far be it from me to say that we graduate students are uniformly busier than our professors, but being in the process of learning how to be an academic brings special stresses and seems to justify some amount of leeway.
The other side, then, is what demands and rewards our programs and the profession offer to us. How many departments have program guidelines that substantially discuss or even mention service to the field, let alone translation in particular? I know, we can’t enshrine everything about what it means to be a professional historian in these hollowed statues. But if departmental requirements aren’t for instilling the values we believe are important in incoming students, then what’s their point? Moreover, without highlighting the importance of different kinds of service in a department’s own hiring and tenure decisions, it’s all too easy for graduate students to slip into cynicism about the value of service.
To come back to translation, even more than other types of professional service it seems to be the sort of thing that must be a labor of love. It may be easier (in some cases, at least) to produce a translation than original work, but what about getting it published or finding another way to distribute it effectively? Would anyone even pay attention to a “translations” section on a CV, let alone evaluate the impact on the field of such work?
Addressing these questions is not easy. As I said above, graduate students already face serious time constraints, and this will only be exacerbated as programs seek to reduce time-to-degree. So I’ll offer only a small suggestion.
Many history programs and fields require students to demonstrate language proficiency, often through a timed translation examination. The exam fulfills its purpose, so long as that is construed narrowly: demonstrating basic reading proficiency under conditions that students are unlikely to ever encounter. (For my exam we were allowed to use a paper dictionary but not an electronic one. I have yet to to find myself in a similar situation.) It accomplishes nothing else.
What if, instead, graduate students were required, during their first quarter or year to translate an academic article and/or primary source in the required language that would be of value to the field beyond their own particular specialty? This would also test reading proficiency, albeit under more realistic conditions. Additionally, the work put into the translation would not be wasted, as the final products could be shared with peers and even undergraduate students.
It is a seemingly minor change. But given the tendency toward individualistic attainment in academia, I think it is worthwhile to consider any step that would encourage collegiality and tangibly impress on young scholars their duty to do more than learn to be good researchers (and maybe teachers). At the very least, it could be a beginning.

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