2.2 A Modest Proposal for Comparative Literature Programs

John O’Brien


Dalkey Archive Press was established in 1984, growing out of a journal founded four years earlier, the Review of Contemporary Fiction. The Review’s mission was to generate criticism on writers from around the world who were generally overlooked both in the media and in academia. Dalkey Archive then sought to publish writers from around the world whose work had little chance of being published if left to commercial houses. The Press now has well over 500 titles in print from about 40 different countries or regions. A primary emphasis for the Press is to continue the tradition of the novel when the form first appeared: a field of play in which almost anything is technically and linguistically possible. Rather than experimental, the Press’s books belong to a well-established tradition that is contrary to the “realism” currently championed by both academia and the media. Dalkey Archive has offices in the United States, Dublin, and London. Its greatest challenge at the moment is finding a final home (preferably at a university) where it can flourish and survive its founder.


Dalkey Archive Press is also the leading publisher of literary translations in both the UK and the US; it presently publishes 35 translations each year. The Press has for several years engaged young translators with internships and fellowships in translation work and publishing, bringing together very practical work in translation (reader reports, sample translations, and eventually a book-length translation) with experience in publishing (editing, acquisitions, contracts, grant-writing). We have done this in an academic setting, though quite often raising eyebrows among academics because of the absence of traditional coursework.


The motivation behind these proactive measures has been a selfish one, namely, to cultivate young translators who will have firsthand knowledge of the issues of translation from the editor’s point of view, as well as the realities of book publishing. The Press began this work with young people and students because my true background is that of a professor of English, and thus my commitment to helping young people, especially in the area of translation. Young translators face an uphill battle when it comes to developing translation skills and to seeing how publishing works. Unlike most presses that take on interns, Dalkey Archive gives interns high-level work, and thus provides them with much-needed experience. We also initiated an on-line certificate program at the University of Illinois for young translators seeking to do their first book-length translation. The Press continues to offer opportunities to young people in all of these areas and is quite open to receiving inquiries. Internships are usually nine months to a year in length, and are unpaid. The Press also uses the internships to find new employees. Over the years, we have been overwhelmed by the number of young translators who seek this experience as a necessary “next step,” and those students have come from throughout the world.


I’ve long held that there should be a natural relationship between comparative literature programs in English-language countries and the training of young translators, especially at a time in which the former seems so threatened by economic restrictions, many of which have fostered by the programs themselves by not clearly defining what they have to offer students. And here I will emphasize the training of translators, rather than the study of translations. Most translation studies program claim that they, too, train students, but they indeed do not, oftentimes restricting such training to a single course, and that course rooted in theory rather than practice. Convincing academia, however, that such experience is worthy of either a certificate or a degree has been frustratingly difficult, even though it would seem that the production of a published translation judged by peers would appear to be an ultimate form of evaluation. Academics, though, look upon such a program as “career preparation,” a term that has traditionally been anathema to humanists.


But what better convergence could there be in a translation program than comparative literature with a publisher whose special area of expertise is translations? If comparative literature is a field in search of an identity, then why would it not pursue translation, and pursue it in such a way as to offer an alternative to current translation studies programs? Rather than leaving this as a purely rhetorical question, I will provide the answer: this is the path that comparative literature should take.


This proposal is not a matter of saying what comparative literature is, but rather what it can do, especially if the goal of any academic program is to benefit students. A great need exists to aid young translators who are now ready to undertake serious work, and yet there is no obvious way for them to proceed except by trial and error. From the perspective of publishers, this is not the best way, if only because publishers usually wind up being where those trials and errors get played out. One of the most valuable experiences that these young translators have is helping to edit translations that the Press is currently working on. They see firsthand the problems that editors face with many translations that arrive in our offices; they read several books for the Press to learn how to do reader reports and sample translations; they often work with foreign publishers and funding agencies, thereby making the contacts that they will need in the future. Finally, they emerge with their first book-length translation.


It remains to be seen if the comparatists are ready to take on this bold challenge.




John O’Brien, Publisher and Editor, founded the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1981, Dalkey Archive Press in 1984, and CONTEXT magazine in 1999.  He has published over 70 articles, interviews, and book reviews.



Inquire: Journal of Comparative Literature

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