Mairi McLauglin: "Translation really belongs everywhere..."

person teaching in a classroom
February 22, 2024

My next interview will be with Dr. Mairi McLauglin of the French Department. Professor McLaughlin’s research largely focuses on linguistics and translation studies. She has two edited volumes, which will be referenced in the interview, which can be found at these links: here and here.

I was able to take Introduction to Translation Studies with Professor McLaughlin this past Fall. Translation studies will be one of the main focuses of this interview—which is especially exciting given Berkeley’s new translation initiative. This initiative seeks to bring translation scholars together, and highlights translation studies as an academic discipline on UC Berkeley’s campus. For all of those interested in the topic of translation, please check out the website.

Just to start us off, what does your work focus on in the French Department, and how did you come to your fields of study? 

I work in two areas: in linguistics and translation studies. You [Lucille] know translation studies, because that’s what we’ve been working on together, but it was actually linguistics that I got interested in first. It was mostly when I was a child learning different languages. I learned Italian first, and then French, then German, and then—I was a bit of a nerd—I went to a Latin club after school. It wasn’t a very big club; there were only a few of us who went to the club. But I got really interested in seeing where there were similarities and differences between the languages, and that got me interested in linguistics. I think I always had more of a ‘math brain’ than a ‘literary brain’ so linguistics is a perfect subject that sits halfway between the more literary and more social sciences end of things. It was the right spot for me. Linguistics was always what I wanted to do in college, and then translation is the thing that feels like I can’t get away from.

Everytime I think I’m planning a new research project, and it’s going to be about linguistics—just about language evolution, or the media—every time I do that, translation is there. I realized that for me, there isn’t linguistics without translation studies, and there isn’t translation studies without linguistics. That first happened…I remember it really well, actually. I was reading an interview with Macy Gray, a singer, in the French press in September 2001, and I was looking at this syntactic structure in French: dislocation. That is when you say something like, “me, I think,” or “the book, it’s great,”---when you have these two elements that refer to the one referent. And I kept seeing examples of this, and realized that we can use it in English but it’s much more frequent in French, so I realized—and Macy Gray wasn’t speaking French, at some point, someone had translated it and added these in—I just wanted to know how, and when. And the work wasn’t there on that; there wasn’t really any work on translation in the news at all at that point. From there, all of my work has stayed at that interface, because I’m not interested in just a single language—I’m not interested in just French—I’m interested in speakers who are multilingual, and texts that are multilingual, or even monolingual texts, but that are produced with a backdrop of multilingualism. 

So that’s how I got to those two things. But I was not a good translator. My lowest grade in college was in a German translation class. I could never work out how to please my translation instructor. He was this really intimidating figure, and I think I realized at that point, I didn’t want to translate, but I wanted to try to help people teach translation better, because it felt like it was this unattainable skill. 

Because this column is mainly focusing on humanities research, I was wondering what your work currently focuses on? 

The two things I’m currently doing: I’m finishing a couple of volumes that are about to come out this Spring. That’s what my current day-to-day is—working on those. They’re both exciting. One of them is the first English language handbook of the French language. It’s the first time that there’ll be this big interdisciplinary handbook and it has what you would expect—chapters that are on linguistics, like phonetics and things like that—but it also has chapters on the language of literature, language of cinema, language of music. That’s taking up most of my time. But my next research project? In the end, all of my work is about the relationship between language, the media, and society.

My next project is on the first periodical that was written about the French language itself, and it’s from the years around the French Revolution. It’s really interesting when people start sharing what they think about French in a periodical, whereas before, you’d had books about the French language, now you have a periodical, and suddenly, women or children are able to share their metalinguistic thought in the public domain. I’m really interested to uncover more about how that shaped what people thought about French. It’s this interesting tension between at once being really a tool to standardize French, but it’s also democratizing. It’s doing both—this restriction, but also this opening up of the language. The two things are happening at once, and that’s the kind of complexity that’s interesting for me about looking at language and the media. 

And something I was wondering about for the French language is more about what The French Academy did to the language. I’ve heard that they’ve standardized the French language in literature—so that older French texts are more similar to modern French texts, than for English, where older English texts are more difficult for modern readers. I was just wondering more about how French differs from English in the ways that the two have been standardized. 

I suppose if you take all of the world’s languages, French and English actually have way more in common—not just linguistically, but in their status, global spreads, histories. These languages have long literary traditions; there are a lot of similarities. French is always cited as this language which is associated with the strongest tradition of purism and prescriptivism. People thinking about English often compare it, and say, ‘English is much freer,’ and for a long time, I think that was the assumption. There’s been some work recently to try to look at texts about French, say from the 17th century, alongside texts about Dutch or German. And it turns out that the French were not the only people that have a tradition of linguistic prescriptivism and purism. It may still turn out to be the most extreme case of purism and prescriptivism, but it’s definitely not on its own.

The Académie Française is interesting, because I think its symbolic power is unequal. The best comparison is that there’s a language academy for Spanish, or there’s the Italian language academy—those are the ones you might compare it to—and there isn’t one for English. But actually, it didn’t do a huge amount in selecting the words we can and cannot use. The academy’s dictionaries historically were quite conservative. When the first edition came out in the 17th century, it was already more conservative than a dictionary that had already been published by someone else before it. And then into the 18th century, when the editions of the Academy’s dictionaries come out, they tend to record the changes that have already taken place. It’s interesting: it wasn’t the driver of individual changes in that sense, but I think it’s the driver of other types of change through its symbolic power. It’s the driver of these ideologies, but I don’t think it has much influence in determining which individual words to use. I think it has much more influence on making French appear to be this very prestigious language.There, I think it has huge power. 

Since translation studies is so new, it’s sometimes underrepresented in institutions. I was just wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the recent initiatives Berkeley has taken to expand translation studies. 

I think we don’t quite have what we need yet here; I think that is fair to say. To back up, thinking about translation isn’t new. Translation studies as a discipline dates from the 1980’s but it’s much more institutionally entrenched in multilingual countries—in Canada, in the Netherlands. There’s no question that translation studies is new there; it’s really well integrated there. It’s in more 

monolingual, English speaking countries—like the UK, and the USA—that it’s slower to become a part of the fabric in our universities and in our academic cultures. But even here, today people are much more interested in working across languages, and across cultures. There’s a critical mass now of people at Berkeley who work on translation, but who don’t all know each other—who are in different departments. There’s just enough of us now that it’s not as though the top-down institution has said to do X, Y or Z, it’s just that there’s enough of us that naturally a change is taking place. 

In the long term, I would like to set up a translation studies center. But setting up a center costs a lot of money. So, we’re starting something that requires less money, which is an initiative. Last semester we had the first soft-launch of that, which was an event on translation on the 1st of November. There we just brought people together from campus, who were working on translation, to start a set of conversations about translation at Berkeley. For the moment, it’s

focused on who is already here, because we want to figure out who the people are who want to be involved, to come to events, and who are the people who want to run it. And then once we work that out, we’ll open it out to the community as well. It’s not going to stay only on campus. I’m hoping it’s the beginning of a journey of having a much more visible presence for translation studies on campus, and taking it out of individual departments and individual scholars, who are often not aware that you can actually be one office away from someone who shares the same interest. Hopefully this is the beginning of a journey. 

And for translation studies, I know that for our class we’ve used both Humanist, and social science perspectives. I was wondering if translation studies is usually viewed more as a humanity, or as a social science, and what distinguishes between those two. 

Yeah, your question made me think: What is the difference? I think you’re working on the same ‘thing’ in some ways, in the humanities and the social sciences. We’re interested in people, and their relationships with each other, and the structure of society. The methodologies are different, and the types of object that you look at to find out more about these things might be different.

In social sciences, there’s this idea of a more empirical methodology, and in the humanities you might be using more critical perspectives. I’m a linguist in a language department, and so I like to use and blend the two. Linguistics at Berkeley is in social sciences. I don’t want to be only doing only one kind; I also don’t want to be using the typical humanities approach—I like to blend the two. I think translation studies honestly isn’t either; it’s both. It tends to be considered an interdiscipline, which cuts across, outside of our College of Letters and Science. To understand translation, you need to be doing brain imaging to see what is happening when someone is translating; you need to be in computer science, helping to develop better machine translation tools and work out how to better integrate humans and machines to produce better translations or to critique translations. 

I think part of why it’s hard to find a home for it is because it really belongs everywhere. It’s hard to think of an area on this campus where it’s not relevant. Any of the professional schools on this campus that you think about: like in journalism—journalists translate, so it’s relevant there. Or at UCSF, there’s translation in healthcare every single day. So it’s present everywhere, even when people don’t realize it. That’s what I was saying today in class, about it being ubiquitous but invisible. And that’s the job that we have to do now, is to make it visibly ubiquitous, rather than invisibly ubiquitous. 

I know in class we talked about Walter Benjamin’s The Task of the Translator. In comparative literature that’s a very well-known essay—I think all my friends who study comp. lit. have read that. But I’ve noticed that people who study language or translation sometimes will have more of a stigma towards that. I was just wondering if I could hear more about The Task of the Translator, and why it is so well-known, but why translators might not appreciate that as much.

Mairi: Yeah, that’s a great question, but I’m going to ask it back to you. Why do you read it, and what do you get out of it as a comp. lit. student? 

Lucille: I read it actually for an English class, but it was world literature in translation. I’m not exactly sure why we read this text specifically. It was a class that was focused on internationalism, postcolonialism and climate change. I believe we read it during our internationalism section, because that’s when we talked most about translation. But I was just a little confused by the text’s popularity, because I guess I don’t quite understand Benjamin’s approach in direct translation, and trying to come to this mystical universal language. It definitely feels more like it’s something that makes more sense as a theory than something that we can actually be applying to real translations. And so that’s why I wanted to ask this question, because I can see how it can be frustrating for translators to read that, because I’m not sure how well it would work in reality. 

Mairi: I mean, I think it’s honestly a classic—the question doesn’t even usually get asked anymore, because it’s so obviously the starting point. You just have to have read it at some point. It’s definitely one of those texts at conferences where someone will say, ‘Well, in The Task of the Translator,’ and half of the room is excited and the other half rolls their eyes. I think the problem in translation studies as a discipline is that since it isn’t institutionally integrated, people don’t know… for example, someone wrote in one of our reflections something like, ‘it was humbling to find out that my thoughts are basically stuck back in the 4th century’. And that’s not that person’s fault. The discipline is actually doing its job, but it’s not being allowed to do its job in the US. And so I think that’s why you end up with a key text like that, where it’s a classic and it gets read because everyone’s read it, and it gets canonized, but I don’t think it’s necessarily the most useful text. But there is obviously something generative about it. I would always tell everyone to read it; I included it on my syllabus. I fall into the, ‘you need to have read it’ camp. But not necessarily because it’s how you should think about things. You need to have read it because everyone in comp. lit. will have read it. I don’t think it’s particularly representative of what people in certain parts of translation studies do, but there is a part of translation studies that is the comp. lit. part. Translation as metaphor is a huge part of translation studies. I think the irony is that people in translation studies are not always good at translating across different parts of the discipline. They assume that their translation studies is everyone else’s translation studies. If we were better able to think about what are the comp. lit. translation studies books, the linguistics translation studies books, then we could talk to each other better. And I’m hoping the Berkeley Translation Initiative will help us do that. 

How do you think translated texts differ from someone who has studied translation studies, versus someone who is bilingual or multilingual but has never actually studied translation?

We have a whole empirical branch to the discipline, so there may be studies that have tested that. I don’t know; I could for sure find out. But from the perspective of someone who teaches translation, I can see in the classroom what happens. Before people have studied translation, when they translate, they translate very literally. Once you study translation—like the first class that we had—you expand the idea of what translation is, people learn, and you can have much freer translation strategies. At that point, people develop a much wider range of strategies. They’re more confident in straying from the original. I always think, if I’m teaching translation: what I want to teach people to do is to be conscious translators, so that they know what they’re doing, when and why. So I want to teach people to be conscious translators, rather than to translate the way I would.

I’m interested in people just knowing what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, and being in charge of their own translations. There probably are empirical studies that would answer that question, but that’s my perspective as an instructor: they have a much richer range of strategies, and their translations are way better, and sometimes, way better than published translations. I’ve had undergraduates here who have submitted projects in French, and they have done a better job than the published translation. 

I know AI has been a huge topic in all of my classes. I’m mainly in literature courses, so of course the reason we’re talking about it is not to use it, but in our French 48 class, we actually did use it for a class activity. I was just wondering more about the role of AI in your scholarship, and how you see it changing student’s scholarship so far? 

When you sent that to me, I was like, ‘Uh-oh, what have I done?’ Let’s be clear that I didn’t ask you to use AI to do your projects. But I think it’s here to stay. I’m interested in knowing more about it, and understanding what it’s going to do. And again, I work on language, media, and society. So, how is it going to change our language? How is it going to change our media? I’m really curious. I realized, when I saw your question, that I did the same thing in my other class: I gave them the option to actually analyze the language of ChatGPT, so clearly I’m interested in it. I don’t think we can pretend it doesn’t exist.

For my own scholarship? I mean it’s interesting—when I went to do my fieldwork on news translation in 2005, I managed to get into one of the world’s main news agencies. And they said, ‘Oh great; we’re developing machine translation tools. Can you help us?’ and I told them, ‘No. That’s not why I’m here.’ My fieldwork happened when it was right on the cusp of machine translation being introduced, so I haven’t actually worked much on it. I’ve worked mostly on human translation, but long-term, I think it will be interesting to still work on the data from then. Because, if now most translations are a combination of computers and humans, then data from when it was just humans translating is really important. That will show us what it was like when we didn't have the machines—although they had dictionaries, which is another type of resource; it’s not as though they were just using their brains. So yeah, it hasn’t had a huge impact so far, but I think it’s coming.

And for my last question, what book would you recommend? 

I like this question—it makes me want to go and read everyone else’s. I love the summer reading list from Berkeley; I always use that. I guess over the last few years my favorite—and this is not a work book, this is a pleasure book—but my favorite book, that I liked so much I had to make sure I got another book to read at the same time to slow down my experience, because I didn’t want it to end, is The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki. If I would’ve slowed it down even further I could’ve. For me that was just the perfect book.