Category: writing and publishing

What is a good translation?

These remarks are prompted by a recent short interview in The Guardian with Sam Taylor, a novelist and translator of 30 books from French into English. He comments

‘Ultimately, it’s a question of taste. My personal ideal for a translation is one that makes the reader forget they are reading a translation at all, but not everyone feels the same way.’

This happens to be my own view as well. I prefer reading well-crafted English, rather than English that is constantly reminding me that it is a transliteration from another language. One could compare the two translations of Foucault’s Histoire de la folie in this context. The first translation of the abridged edition by Richard Howard, Madness and Civilization was a wonderful poetic excursion that flowed beautifully in English, just as Foucault’s book flowed in its original language. The two translators of the more recent and complete History of Madness have opted for the transliteration style – constantly reminding the reader that it was a book originally written in French. Perhaps these respective choices were made due to the relative celebrity of Foucault at the time of each translation. Howard’s translation appeared in 1964 when Foucault was little known even in France. In 2006, when the second translation by Jonathan Murphy and Jean Khalfa was published, Foucault’s name brought an immense baggage of previous translation and interpretation.

To turn to other examples – this time in the realm of television. The 1970s American buddy cop TV series Starsky and Hutch was immensely popular in France as witty asides were added in the French dub that were not there in the original.

The late 70s Japanese TV show, Monkey  was also entertainingly rendered into English by David Weir who didn’t speak Japanese. He worked with a translation of the dialogue and rewrote it to work for an English speaking audience and also to fit what was happening on screen. (See a short list of lines from his script -some more dubious than others- that I put together back in the early days of the net). As Rebecca Hausler remarks in a recent article in The Conversation the “translation of Monkey was really more of a complete re-writing … adding plenty of puns, double-entendres, and pseudo philosophical musings”. I would qualify this by saying that perhaps the musings are not always so pseudo given that many of them refer to Buddhist scripture.

So which is best – a meticulously and technically accurate translation or one that works in the language into which it is translated? I would argue that there is a place for both approaches.

The Scholarly Writing Process (A Short Guide) (2016)

Jo VanEvery, The Scholarly Writing Process (A Short Guide)
Published November 1, 2016
Ebook: ISBN 978-1-912040-72-8
Paperback (178 x 111 mm): ISBN 978-1-912040-00-1

Getting stuck is a normal part of the writing process, even for experienced writers. My aim in publishing this Short Guide is to help you generate new writing projects, keep your writing projects moving forward, and ensure that your writing process results in publications. Designed so you can refer to it whenever you get stuck, this Short Guide breaks down the scholarly writing process into stages and provides both a description of that stage and writing prompts to help you get unstuck.

Table of Contents:
Preface: How to use this Short Guide
Introduction: Writing as Process & Product
Beginnings
Moving Your Project Forward
From process to product: Who are you writing for?
Determining which writing products to prioritize
Refining a specific writing product
What is finished?
Getting another perspective
Submission, Revision, publication
And you keep writing

LSE Impact Blog – “Six academic writing habits that will boost productivity” (plus other links)

Progressive Geographies

LSE Impact Blog – “Six academic writing habits that will boost productivity

I’m not sure by the notion of ‘productivity’, but there is some good advice here. Here are the headlines:

  1. They “time-block” their writing in advance
  2. They set themselves artificial deadlines
  3. They deliberately seek “flow” (but don’t push themselves if they can’t find it)
  4. They design accountability structures around themselves
  5. They use small steps and short deadlines to tackle large projects
  6. They “write their way” out of their blocks

On the last point, see this useful post at Explorations of Style. Jo van Every continues to provide useful advice. See, for example, Is this Real Writing or procrastination? and Incorporating writing into your workload: The Research Day (an excerpt from her next book).

This Twitter thread also has some useful suggestions:

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Why do so many academics publish in unreadable outlets?

Progressive Geographies

Why do so many academics publish in unreadable outlets?

I don’t mean the prose style is unreadable (though it might be), but I’m thinking of the outlets they chose to publish in.

Obviously, I recognise that the ‘gold standard’ for many academics is the refereed journal article, and the majority of these journals, especially the ones that are ‘highly ranked’, are subscription-only. If you are working towards getting a job, tenure, promotion, research assessment and so on, you may need to publish in those kinds of outlets. Fine, this is a compromise between accessibility and recognised outlet.

I’m thinking of two other kinds of outputs.

First, authored and edited books. Why do so many academics continue to publish books which are hardback only, very expensive, often with poor production values, and so on? And, given the current trend for very short books (Briefs, Shorts, Forerunners, Swifts, Pivots, etc.) why do authors…

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Foucault: the specific intellectual and universities

The intellectual par excellence used to be the writer: as a universal consciousness, a free subject, he was counterpoised to those intellectuals who were merely competent instances in the service of the state or capital — technicians, magistrates, teachers. Since the time when each individual’s specific activity begun to serve as the basis for politicization, the threshold of writing, as the sacralizing mark off the intellectual, has disappeared. And it has become possible to develop lateral connections across different forms of knowledge and from one focus of politicization to another. Magistrates and psychiatrists, doctors and social workers, laboratory technicians and sociologists have become able to participate, both within their own fields and through mutual exchange and support, in a global process of politicization of intellectuals. This process explains how, even as the writer tends to disappear as a figurehead, the university and the academic emerge, if not as principal elements, at least as ‘exchangers,’ privileged points of intersection. If the universities and education have become politically ultra-sensitive areas, this is no doubt the reason why. And what is called the crisis of the universities should not be interpreted as a loss of power, but on the contrary as a multiplication and reinforcement of their power effects as centers in a polymorphous ensemble of intellectuals who virtually all pass through and relate themselves to the academic system.”
Michel Foucault. (1984) [1977]. , ‘Truth and Power’. In Paul Rabinow (ed) The Foucault reader. New York: Pantheon Books, p. 68

Random thoughts in response

This very interesting reflection by Foucault resonates strongly today. Perhaps one could argue that the remnants of the old – perhaps romantic – figure of the intellectual as writer are now being thoroughly expunged from the system in favour of the new ‘politicised’ figure of the academic – but that ‘politicisation’ has changed in emphasis since the late 1970s when Foucault made this remark. If he was referring to political radicalism, this ‘politicisation’ is now skewed in the sense of being a functionary of governmental systems. Certainly this passage by Foucault is one that could bear more thought on its applications within a contemporary context.

The death of the author revisited

A version of this piece was published in The Australian Higher Education Supplement on 4th April 2012 as ‘Credit where it’s due – but who deserves top billing?’ I posted this on my blog last year but have moved it up as I have made quite a few revisions.

We do not characterise a ‘philosophical author’ as we do a ‘poet’, just as in the eighteenth century, one did not construct a novelist as we do today. Still, we can find through the ages certain constants in the rules of author construction.

Michel Foucault, ‘What is an author? In The Foucault Reader. Edited by Paul Rabinow. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984, p. 110

Random thoughts in response

In the late 1960s, French theorists Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault famously pronounced the author to be, if not dead, then decidedly fragile. Foucault in his 1969 article ‘What is an author?’ drew attention to the considerable ambiguity surrounding contemporary and historical notions of the author, defining the author as the originator of certain socially agreed upon types of writing.

To explain what he means by the ‘certain constants’ referred to above, Foucault invokes the four criteria Saint Jerome used to determine whether a body of work had the same author, namely (1) consistent quality across works attributed to one author (2) conceptual and theoretical coherence (3) consistent style (4) references only to events which happened before the designated author’s death. (p. 113) While recognising that Saint Jerome’s criteria might appear very simplistic in the context of contemporary literary criticism, Foucault argues they are still descriptive of the basic processes used to attribute authorship.

What I want to do here is offer a few reflections on the idea of the author in the current university context. Authorship is perhaps one of the most highly prized commodities in the academic world. It is used as a measure of reputation and a measure by which individuals are judged worthy of promotion through the ranks of what remains an intricately feudal hierarchy. Being an author who has produced numerous works published by prestigious publishing houses and journals and which are cited and otherwise referred to by many others (‘impact’) is the nirvana of academic achievement. Other functions such as being a good teacher, a good administrator or engaging in community research and consultancy, still come in a remote second in this tacitly agreed upon academic pantheon, in spite of the best efforts of university administrations to valorise these latter roles.

But authorship does not function in the same way across all academic disciplines. The sciences, social sciences and the humanities all have different rules which govern what it means to be an author. In the sciences, the rules are complex. A paper often has numerous co-authors. This can reflect the notion that the paper or journal article tends to function more as a report or a write up of findings than a piece of argued writing and that everybody involved in conducting the experiments and theorising the empirical research should therefore be acknowledged as an author. Thus authorship becomes a category which is used to recognise the generation and ownership of certain research practices and theories rather than simply writing. The authors listed on a scientific paper might not always necessarily be the actual writers of that paper.

Further to this, sometimes attribution has more to do with the relative rank of the author in a hierarchy of power than the amount of actual work done by the named author(s). For example, a professor and supervisor may be given far more weight than a student – even if the student has done most of the work. This rather worrying practice is being imported into the social sciences and humanities and sees postgraduate students (a minority as yet) automatically listing their supervisor as co-author on papers for which the student has been solely responsible. Thus the Matthew principle begins to operate and the professor/supervisor accrues more power, adding items to their publication list at little cost. The student (perhaps) improves their chances of publication and the status of their work by the addition of a prestigious name to their work. One might also mention another practice, which is hopefully less prevalent than it once was, namely the publication by the god-professor of the work of anonymous research assistants and postgraduate students under his own name (and the gender attribution here is deliberate).

To deal with the problem of the order in which co-authors should be listed, there is now even a piece of software – Authorder – which is purportedly designed to simplify the process, using complex calculations of percentages in relation to work done. Theoretically at least, the order of authors listed should then reflect who has done the most work on the paper.

This situation in the sciences has long been recognised by those involved in the field as one fraught with dangers and wide open to corruption and abuses of power. Practices which have been observed to be highly problematic in their scientific disciplines of origin are now seeping through, without any apparent thought as to the consequences, into the humanities and social sciences. The adulation of science and scientific method as a benchmark of truth for all forms of knowledge, even after coming under heavy attack in the 1960s and beyond, is clearly reasserting its primacy in ever more sophisticated forms in the new millennium.

In the humanities however, the link between author and writing cannot be attenuated in this fashion. Humanities output is defined by the writing and argumentation itself: it is not simply a report on some other exterior ‘research’ activity. The problem of how others should be recognised in the production of this kind of writing, has usually been solved by the practice of acknowledgements, rather than by granting co-authorship. So, for example, research assistants, editors, typists, colleagues and friends who have read the writing and made suggestions, colleagues who have helped to write research grants and other institutional supports are thanked in footnotes or dedicated acknowledgements sections, they are not listed as co-authors.

But things are perhaps not so cut and dried in the social sciences where various types of empirical research such as statistical, interview and survey data are all reported on. Is the model of multiple authorship of papers, in the science style of recognising contributors to the research (or even supervisors), rather than solely those involved in the writing and conceptualisation of the paper valid here? This is an interesting question. Often a paper in the social sciences is more than a matter of mere reporting of findings: it includes an argument about the data. Given this is the case, should those merely collecting data be included as authors?

In some areas of social science there has been a trend towards granting co-authorship to the diverse categories of people involved in the infrastructure of producing a journal article. This is sometimes done in a democratic spirit of inclusivity, expressing a desire to help people accrue points in the struggle to achieve the holy grail of promotion. Laudable as this inclusive impulse may be, can this diversity of contributors be granted the title of ‘author’ without unduly attenuating what this is generally understood to mean?

Perhaps we could ask a further question from a slightly different angle. What is the general expectation of a reader when he or she sees an author’s name attached to a piece of published writing? I might specify that we are talking about the ‘author function’ here. As Foucault notes ‘A private letter may well have a signer – it does not have an author; a contract may well have a guarantor – it does not have an author. An anonymous text posted on a wall probably has a writer but not an author’ (pp. 107-8). The reader of an article in the social sciences or humanities usually assumes that the author of a published piece of work has been involved in some way in the actual drafting of the text and the construction of its arguments.

Foucault adds that the historical invention of the notion of ‘authorship’ marked a ‘moment of individualisation in the history of ideas, knowledge, literature, philosophy, and the sciences’ (p. 101). One might be tempted to argue that once the number of listed authors has expanded beyond a certain numerical threshold, then there is a move away from this moment of individualisation. But this doesn’t take into account the fact that each listed author accrues another point on their CV which individualises them further both within the power structures of the institutional field of the university and that of the larger global academic community.

If a new model of authorship is going to be instituted in the social sciences, then in the interests of truth and transparency, there needs to be a far clearer delineation of just what the attribution of ‘author’ means. Or, perhaps to make things simpler, there needs to be a return to earlier and still existing models of acknowledgements with author status only being granted to those who have actually done the writing and arguing.

What is not in doubt in any of this, however, is that the notion of the author is, and has always been, shot through and through with complex relations of power. These need to be the subject of constant vigilance and critical consideration within the academic economy if the integrity of the research process and the value of its contribution to the wider social body is going to be maintained.

The New Academic

A version of this piece was originally published as ‘Conformity blunts creativity’, The Australian. Higher Education Supplement, Dec 12, 2007.

I have added a few minor tweaks to bring it more up to date. But unfortunately not a lot has changed since 2007!

Up till now there have been two dominant images of the humanities and social sciences scholar. The first picture is of a dry-as-dust individual obsessed with arcane pursuits far removed from the run of everyday life. A more attractive model, emerging from the upheaval of the 1960s and 70s, can be found in the ‘library militant’. This is the academic who uses scholarship to expose long standing social injustice and to give new value to knowledge sidelined by mainstream institutions and mechanisms of power.

Both cliches still survive of course, but we are now seeing the advent of a third model of scholarship in universities. This new scholarship is a dreary and miserable process of conforming to the straitjacket of multiple rules laid down by endless committees deliberating on ‘productivity’ and ‘standards’. Academics are exhorted to be ‘innovative’ and ‘original’ but only so long as their work fits into normalising Government guidelines or that new byzantine labyrinth of bureaucratic regulation which is the metricisation of research output (formerly the RQF, now the ERA in Australia). Failure to comply relegates all rogue work to hobby status.

So what actually happens when an academic is deemed to be non-productive on the research front, either through misrecognition of their work or failure to produce due to unmanageable teaching and admin workloads? Said academic may be threatened with ‘disciplinary action’ (a phrase previously only ever heard in the most extreme of circumstances: murder, madness or scandalous sexual misdemenour). Or, alternately the offending individual is subjected to the dire punishment of being ‘mentored’ until he or she can meet benchmarks of corporate productivity.

But publication is not all: there is the anxiety ridden, and now virtually obligatory, process of applying for grants. It is an exercise which is time consuming, onerous and often unproductive (when the application is rejected) and again, only research which addresses set government and industry priorities need apply. The days of the university as an independent and self-determining contributor to the general social body are long gone indeed.

A whole new taxonomy of academic and scholar has likewise arisen. We find the eager, fresh, and often not so young, early career researchers (ECRs or ECARDs in bureaucratic speak), delicate flowers who must be carefully nurtured through a strictly designed cursus of mentoring and specially targeted grants. Then there are the more traditionally named ‘Professors’, often appointed more for their administrative and networking talents than for any major contribution to their field. (Of course, to be fair, there are still many Professors who have earned their position through notable scholarship). And lucky last, we must not forget the middle ranks of anonymous ‘B’ and ‘C’ ranked lecturers eking out an existence with limited promotion prospects, crushed under the drudgery of impossible teaching loads and of increasingly strident demands to produce the requisite minimum of two refereed publications a year. Of course these are just the staff with permament jobs. There is also an entire underclass of poorly paid casual and part time labour in the form of sessional tutors.

To compound matters, there is scant respect from other sectors in the social body for the kind of work academics do. The political furore over a disregarded 2007 University of Sydney study of the impact of Prime Minister John Howard’s Industrial Relations package is a case in point, providing a striking example of the cavalier disregard for the expertise of those working in universities.

The net is littered with blogs describing the impossibilities of teaching and writing in the new university, the career and promotion dead ends, the impossibility of even getting a job and any number of other woes. Amazon helpfully offers solutions in the form of books with titles such as Write to the Top: How to be a Prolific Academic and A PhD is not enough!: A Guide to Survival in Science.

This is a bleak scenario indeed and doom and gloom reign supreme. There is very little mention in this landscape, beyond mere lip service, of how exciting research and scholarship can be, the positive contribution it makes to human knowledge and culture and the possibilities for present and future freedoms it opens up for everybody. Creative ideas (even down to the word ‘creative’) are forced into a corporate mould and it becomes a matter of quantity not quality. How many refereed articles did you publish this year? How many dollars in research grants did you receive? This is a point that has been made so many times before that it has become a mantra, but in a society where the quantifiable exchange of goods is all, nobody is listening.

So what is the solution to all this? I would like to make three modest proposals. To begin with, there should be more of a refusal to play along. Academics often comply unnecessarily with the frequently counter-productive rules which are handed down from on high every week in universities. A healthy passive resistance, a polite and nodding agreement while waiting for it to go away, works wonders when practised en masse.

Secondly, academics might take back some control of their own sociability and organise informal networks in addition to participating in the carefully structured and monitored ones on offer by the corporation. These informal networks could encourage an atmosphere of mutual support rather than one of relentless competition and ostentatious display.

A third strategy might involve seizing back some minimum enjoyment of the scholarly process of reading, research and writing. This could be undertaken as a desperate counter measure to deal with the stressful necessity of adding yet more metrics shaped notches to the CV in an attempt to satisfy the demands of increasingly invasive performance reviews.

Small suggestions perhaps, but in a situation where there is very little room for manoeuvre, one has to start somewhere.