“An alternative history of the Summer School’s first years” A speech by Clem Robyns, Participant of the 1st Summer School in 1989

Clem Robyns Brussel

On August 27, CETRA opened its 30th research summer school in Translation Studies. On the occasion of this anniversary edition, the floor was given to Clem Robyns, a participant of the very first Summer School in 1989. Below, you can read his alternative history of the Summer School’s first years. 

“Good afternoon and thank you, Luk, for inviting me. It’s really nice of you  to give the last word to a dropout… When I was walking to this building, I felt like a walking time capsule: “hey, it’s been thirty years, let’s dig up Clem and see what’s inside!” Indeed I quit translation studies more than twenty years ago to start working in television (memo to this year’s participants: this is what will happen to you if ou don’t finish your PhD), but my heart has always remained with Cetra, and it’s great to be here. One of the things that make Cetra stand out indeed, is that it hasn’t only inspired innovation, it has also inspired deep loyalty. Many people here were with us from the start: Reine Meylaerts, Dirk Delabastita, Lieven D’hulst… Daniel Gile, almost from the start, and José Lambert of course, the man who conceived of the whole thing.

The history of Cetra actually begins more than 30 years ago, in 1987, with something called the Penn Leuven Institute for Literary and Cultural studies. When I look back at that time, it looks like, and probably was, another world. Belgium didn’t have commercial television yet, Ronald Reagan was the president of the United States (and we thought THAT was pretty bad), and there was still a wall in Berlin. More to the point, there were hundreds of Berlin walls between scholarly disciplines, institutions and even individuals. When I started as an undergraduate at the Faculty of Arts at Leuven University, one of my professors even described his institute as a large conglomerate of one-person companies, that all manufactured and sold their own scholarly product. I soon learned that as a student you had to find out for yourself which products were up to date and which ones had a more, let’s say historical or local interest.

In that collection of one-person companies there was one professor who stood out, mainly because we could never find him. “Where’s Lambert?” was probably the question we asked most often. And Lambert would, infallibly, be abroad, giving lectures at other universities or at international conferences. But when he was at home base, he would tell us things that I later discovered were part of an emerging vision of translation and culture he was developing and promoting. We didn’t always understand what he was talking about, but we did know that it was exciting. Lambert, who became José, was an endlessly stimulating, sometimes exasperating presence, who more or less sucked us into science. Katrin Van Bragt, one of José’s first collaborators, once said to me: “José is a vampire”. I knew exactly what she meant by then.

So with his indomitable energy and his international contacts, José founded the Penn Leuven Institute for Literary and Cultural studies, a summer school in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania. It was the first time my fellow students and I could meet the great names in the field.

The next year, the Penn Leuven Institute made another big step. In 1988, when computers still had black screens with green characters, and most people were just thinking of buying their first “personal computer”, the second session already focused on the use of computing in literary studies. It was indeed the year that Josés tendency to break barriers reached unprecedented heights. Halfway that session I discovered that a very amicable young American participant was actually… a dentist. So when I asked him how the hell he got there, his answer was, and I’m quoting quite literally: “I don’t know, I met José and he told me it would be interesting for me.”

And then, in 1989, at the occasion of the Third Penn Leuven Institute, José once again launched something new. Initially it was called the Cera Chair for Translation, Communication and Cultures – take note of the ambition that the title conveys. Why CeRA and not CeTRA? Cera was a large Belgian bank at the time, and José had convinced one of their top managers… well, that it would be interesting for them to give us their money. And they did. It did help, I must admit, that the manager was also one of José’s tennis partners.

I mention that last detail because later, when I talked to Gideon Toury about the way José managed to suck people into his projects, he interrupted me and said with a big smile: “I know I know, he plays tennis with them”. That was partially true, but I wish it had been that easy. José’s fight to get his chair established and funded was nothing less than heroic. Imagine conceiving something that on the one hand insists on a whole new approach to the study of translations, and on the other hand refuses to fit into a neatly established discipline precisely at a time when that discipline, translation studies, is trying hard to establish itself. Moreover, imagine conceiving an institute for the study of translations that refuses to fit into a neat local institutional framework, at a time when international frameworks don’t even exist yet. Imagine breaking those three boundaries, conceptual, disciplinary and institutional at the same time… and then trying to get money for it. But José did it, not by the force of his volley or his backhand, but by the force of his vision, and by being the most stubborn man in the field. Soon he got support from some of his colleagues who recognized a great idea when they heard one, and the Cera Chair happened.

By the time Penn Leuven became the Cera Chair I had started my PhD under José’s supervision, so I was not only a participant but also more or less the practical coordinator of the whole affair. That involved everything from finding rooms for participants and drawing up schedules to making lists of affordable Leuven restaurants and organizing parties. It was all a bit amateuristic, very Belgian really. We like to get organized as we go along.

And organization was necessary because the Cera Chair grew fast and as I said, there was no institutional framework then. I’ll tell you just one anecdote to give you an idea of how it was those first years. José Lambert was and probably is the scientific genius type who thrives in massive amounts of books and papers piled up on desks and chairs and floors, and who never, ever throws anything away. So after a couple of years we were drowning in paper and my colleague Peter Jansen and I took a drastic measure. We installed José in an empty seminar room, surrounded, locked in really, by tables. Peter and I carried ALL the piles of documents  to that room, dumped them on the tables, and made José go through everything and decide what he really, really needed to keep, and throw the rest on the floor. Only when he was knee-deep in paper, we released him.

But that’s just an anecdote. It was a risky endeavour and it could all have gone south, but it didn’t. The Cera Chair became Cetra, and Cetra has become a central institution in translation studies, probably because it was exactly what the young discipline needed: a place where young minds meet and clash with amazing minds.

For me, the first of those amazing minds is still the most amazing one, the inescapable Gideon Toury who became the very first chair professor. I was still discovering the field then, and the field was still discovering itself, but it was crystal clear that Gideon’s book In Search of a Theory of Translation was, in José’s words, a copernican revolution in the study of translations. Just meeting him was frightening, even if he was the gentlest man you could imagine. But as a scholar he was merciless. He could cut the grass from under your feet with one well-aimed sentence. I still remember exactly what he wrote 30 years ago on the draft of my first scholarly article, about translations of detective novels. “Parts one and two are ok, but too long. Part three is simply bad. Rewrite it or cut it altogether.” So  I cut part three altogether and was astonished to see the thing accepted for publication in Target. That is another feature of Cetra: a combination of being really demanding and offering genuine support.

But the Cera Chair wanted to be more. The second year already José invited Hans Vermeer as chair professor, a formidable scholar whose approach was emphatically NOT José’s and Gideon’s, and who actually was openly critical of the approach to translation that the Leuven – Tel Aviv axis promoted. A couple of years later the chair professor was Mary Snell-Hornby, another important scholar who had taken shots at our approach. This was typical: Leuven stood for something, but invited others into the lion’s den.

I said, it was a different age, and many translation scholars who were also translation teachers had little patience for people claiming that you have to study translational norms, and not propose them. We in descriptive translation studies on the other hand, didn’t always respect how much teaching can teach you about the behavior we claimed to study. I remember a young colleague saying that asking translators to practice translation studies is like asking tomatoes to practice biology.  And I remember a not unimportant international symposium in Amsterdam, that at some point became a shouting match between both camps. Here too, Cetra soon tried to tear down the wall. The fifth chair professor for instance was Daniel Gile, who rigorously combined translation studies and teaching, and who is still on the staff.

Most of all I remember, and I hope and trust this year’s participants will remember, Cetra as intensely exciting. Meeting people from whom you want to learn, meeting people of your own generation and find out how they think, being able to discuss your work with interested strangers, and maybe become friends with them. It’s something you hope to experience at an international conference but never get, because there by the third day you’re spread out in the lobby, knocked out by way too many lectures in way too little time. Cetra gives you all that and still leaves you some time to breathe.

Which is why, very early on, Cetra also became a community. I’d like to quote Daniel Gile: “Cetra has become a pathway to translation studies for several hundred young scholars, and the links that arose between alumni and instructors probably had a major role in giving cohesion to the translation studies community.” Thus, José’s stubborn dream became a reality. Cetra has indeed torn down many Berlin walls, and it continues to advocate the establishment of a post-disciplinary scholarly space.

So as a grateful dropout I wish you all a fun and fruitful Cetra session, one of many, many more to come. But I hope, and I know, that every session of Cetra will be… (I’m going to quote myself now, from the short preface I wrote a quarter of a century ago for the very first volume of papers by Cetra participants. It was called “Translation studies, the next generation”. I’m actually much more a Star Wars person, so I always regretted not having called it “Translation Studies, a new hope”…) Anyway, I know that every session of Cetra will be a tribute, and I quote, “to the one person who took the initiative, José Lambert, who never rests, never stops having six revolutionary ideas a day, and never gets tired of stimulating young people to become enthusiastic scholars, to boldly go where no one, or everyone, has gone before”. All of you, thank you for listening, and José, thank you for everything.”


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