The death of translation in the English-speaking world has been greatly exaggerated... but who has what it takes?

One out of every five Americans today knows at least one language in addition to English—as a first language, a heritage language, from residence or work abroad, or (most importantly) from study. Out of that vast group of people will surely come a substantial generation of writers able to take books from all over the world and render them into stylish English. But aspiring translators need to know not just a language but the culture that informs it—from nursery rhymes to high literature, from pop songs to political history. A degree in a traditional language and literature department is a good foundation, but substantial residence in the country and engagement with it through work or study are just as necessary. The better a translator grasps the source text in all its dimensions, the easier it is to say it in English: in my experience, disputes over “literal” and “free” as well as “domesticating” versus “foreignizing” translation styles often evaporate when the meaning and force of the original is completely clear.

Mastery of a language and a profound knowledge of its culture, though fundamental, do not a translator make. There’s no substitute for knowing the field of reference: you need to be a bit of an archeologist to translate a book about archeology, a bit of a historian to do a history book well, and so on. With literature there is no field in which it is possible to acquire specific expertise. There are novels about motorcycle maintenance, dentistry, about mining, and sailing on the high seas. The demands on the translator of fiction and poetry are as vast as the world itself, and it’s not obvious how a translator can face such challenges. Translators need to be quick studies and also expert researchers (Wikipedia doesn’t count). For translators, the training you get in a good humanities research or Ph.D. program is hard to beat.

Even so, to do good work as a translator you also need ease, fluency, and grace when you write in your target language. Many U.S. universities now offer translation degrees at undergraduate and master’s levels that seek to develop writing skills, either inside or alongside the established M.F.A.s and writer’s workshops. It remains to be seen whether these courses will benefit the quality of translation.

For understanding the original, the ideal translator is immensely old, has read everything already, and picks up every allusion, be it completely outdated or intensely topical. For writing the translation, on the other hand, the ideal translator is probably still quite young, with linguistic habits and cultural references that are bang up-to-date. Some think the best results could be obtained by pairing an old and a young translator (I’m told it’s done in Japan), but in the English-speaking world not many experienced hands have the time to take on apprentices.

The bigger problem, however, is to educate the users of translations. Whether in finance or politics, in NGOs or in the media, the people who commission and use translations most often have little clue about what they are asking for. It’s quite surprising how few people in publishing and the academy have much of a grasp of what translation is and how it is done. What I’ve been trying to do at Princeton is to draw a wide range of students from the sciences and social sciences as well as the humanities into courses about translation—not to make them into translators, but into more sophisticated users of translations. With a dose of philosophy and a sprinkling of linguistics and history alongside encounters with subtitlers, anthropologists, comparative law professors, software developers, and interpreters, I seek to inform them of some of the theoretical and practical issues that arise in language transfer in the many fields where it occurs (including literature, of course, but not exclusively or even primarily there).

My hope is they will form the vanguard of a generation more aware of what translation can and cannot do, and become more respectful of the difficulties translators face in an increasingly multipolar world. Needless to say, I would be delighted if other universities were to follow suit by teaching similar courses.

David Bellos is director of the program in Translation and Intercultural communication at Princeton University. His book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? will be published by Faber and Faber on October 11.

Click here for the author’s video clip about his book.