Lost in Translation?: Reflections on the Move From Graduate Student to Junior Faculty Member

By Ezekiel Goggin, Skidmore College

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Poring over yellowed manuscripts is not the only sort of translational work early career scholars must do. There is also the question of translating their “grad student skills” into the pedagogical skills necessary for success as a junior faculty member. But there is no simple, one size fits all approach to this challenge.

Doctoral students in religious studies almost inevitably end up doing quite a bit of translation work. Nearly all of us, I would hazard a guess, have agonized over how to properly parse and render some term of art from the Sanskrit, or Hebrew, or Mittelhochdeutsch (the list goes on). Linguistic and conceptual diversity is, after all, an exciting and essential part of the game we play. We face other translational issues as well: how ought we “translate” our research into the wider academic community, making the case for the relevance of our interests and uncovering points of connection with other fields of inquiry and discourse? And of course, there is family dinner translation work which we often undertake on the fly at holiday parties and reunions.  “So what is your dissertation about?” “What exactly are you doing for this new fellowship?” “So tell me, in like 5 sentences: what did Hegel think about religion?” For the religious studies researcher, these are important skills, one and all.

In my experience, successfully making the move from graduate student to junior professor demands a different, but no less important sort of translation. How ought we best “translate” the laser-focused, research-specific skills we develop during our graduate years to meet the needs of departments and students in a variety of institutional contexts? And how can we do so in a way that elevates the conversations taking place there? Rather than being an expression of linguistic diversity, this translational issue is one of institutional diversity which resonates deeply with the challenges of “family dinner” and “wider academe” translation noted above.

These questions are far from a case of pedagogical navel-gazing. They have concrete ramifications. The needs of religion, philosophy, or humanities programs are simply not the same everywhere we will teach. A liberal arts program may expect professors to place a heavy accent on helping students develop a repertoire of critical and interpretive skills. A publicly-funded state school might expect a greater focus on objective assessments of religious literacy. A community college may want an instructor who can draw concrete connections between religious and philosophical materials and the sorts of conflicts and questions that can arise in a range of definite vocational settings. But even these typological differences only hold so far. They are generalizations, and do not provide any hard and fast rule.

Recognizing the challenge posed by institutional diversity is relatively straightforward for those with even a modicum of intellectual humility and genuine pedagogical concern. Figuring out how to respond to that “translational” challenge is decidedly more difficult. The very facts of institutional diversity militate against a “one-size fits all” approach. There is no secret formula, no algorithm. If we approach the translation of our “research-oriented” skills in this way, we are apt to reap the pedagogical equivalent of a clunky, unserviceable result from “Google Translate”. Indeed, this challenge can at times seem so context-dependent that we ourselves can feel “lost” amidst the vicissitudes of “translation.”

It seems that we need some way to orient ourselves to the task of translation while remaining genuinely sensitive to the challenge that institutional diversity poses. To that end, I would like to turn to Walter Benjamin’s 1923 essay “The Task of the Translator.” In the essay, originally published as the introduction to a volume of translations of Charles Baudelaire, Benjamin provocatively claims that the work of translating poetry is not the strict transmission of the meaning of the words of one idiom to another, so much as the attempt to render their way of meaning in terms of an alien form of signification. This has, for Benjamin, a rather definite consequence for translation: in the last instance, syntax takes priority over semantics. I don’t want to argue for the relevance of Benjamin’s method of translation for the broader pedagogical issue at hand, so much as I would like to as to draw attention to an image used by Benjamin to illustrate tension between languages as the translator encounters them. This has remained, for me, an important touchstone in imagining my own pedagogical “translation work” as an evolving, fluid, dialogical encounter with my students. Benjamin depicts the process of translation as a voice which reverberates across an occluded landscape: “Translation finds itself not in the center of the language forest but on the outside facing the wooded ridge; it calls into it without entering, aiming at the single spot where the echo is able to give, in its own language, the reverberation of the work in the alien one.”[1] As I seek to tweak and modify my approach to translating “research skills” into pedagogical ones, I always try to keep Benjamin’s metaphor in mind, and to lend a careful ear to the echo of my voice as it reverberates in new contexts and among new students –in their questions, comments, essays. What tones carry through? Which are lost? If I stand a little to the left… or perhaps I should take a step backward?

A metaphor hardly seems a satisfying solution to the problem of “translation” as implied by institutional diversity. Fair enough. But perhaps the “solution” to problem is rather a matter of representing this problem in the specific form of its insolvability. Perhaps the trick is to sustain this question, to continually revisit it, to keep our ears pricked for a distant echo from a foreign wood.

[1] Walter Benjamin. “The Task of the Translator” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings vol 1: 1913-1926 Ed. by Marcus Block and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2004), 258-259.

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