Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman. Yale University Press, $24.00, 160pp.
Back in 2003, the New York Times ran an article entitled “America Yawns at Foreign Fiction” driving home the idea that American publishers don’t publish many books in translation (the commonly cited statistic is that translations make up less than 3 percent of all books published in America), that readers don’t care to read international literature (the opening line of the article is a joke about how Americans had no idea who Imre Kertesz was when he won the Nobel Prize), and that this situation is unlikely to change.
All pretty depressing stuff for anyone interested in works from beyond our borders, but, to be honest, none of this was very surprising. Conversations about literature in translation are ruled by negativity: Translators aren’t paid enough. Publishers don’t support literature in translation. Booksellers ignore these books in favor of Twilight knock-offs and other schlock. No one reads anymore anyway. Translation is impossible.
No wonder Edie Grossman is a bit touchy:
We read translations all the time, but of all the interpretive arts, it is fascinating and puzzling to realize that only translation has to fend off the insidious, damaging question of whether or not it is, can be, or should be possible. It would never occur to anyone to ask whether it is feasible for an actor to perform a dramatic role or a musician to interpret a piece of music. Of course it is feasible, just as it is possible for a translator to rewrite a work of literature in another language. Can it be done well? I think so, as do my translating colleagues, but there are other, more antipathetic opinions.
This touchiness, this need to justify, is what drives the first part of Why Translation Matters, the first book in a new series from Yale University Press about “Why X Matters” connected to an annual lecture series at the Whitney Center for the Humanities. The introduction and first two pieces in this book—”Authors, Translators, and Readers Today” and “Translating Cervantes”—are based on the three talks Grossman gave at Yale.
These pieces capture Grossman’s penchant for talking, for sharing her passion, and as talks, I bet they were spectacular. On the page, they don’t work quite as well, with the repetitions slowing things down and the meandering style taking away from her main points. But this is a pretty mild criticism. Though the individual pieces could be tighter (just compare them to “Translating Poetry,” which was written exclusively for this collection), they’re enjoyable and informative. And it’s clear that Grossman cares—really cares—about not just translations, but literature as a whole:
And so we come back to the first question: why does translation matter, and to whom? I believe it matters for the same reason and in the same way that literature matters—because it is crucial to our sense of ourselves as humans. The artistic impulse and the need for art in our species will not be denied.
As someone who talks almost non-stop about translations, their importance to culture, the difficulties in publishing them, etc., etc., I’m well aware of all the trappings that come with trying to explain “why translations matter.” One of the big problems with a book of this sort is that frequently one ends up preaching to the choir. Who goes to hear a speech about literature in translation? Not the editor who’s completely opposed to publishing it, and definitely not the reader who only wants more Stephanie Meyer. It’s the ones who least need to hear it who cheer internally every time Grossman nails it—like when she gets on a roll about the general ignorance of book reviewers (self included):
Unlike many publications that do not even mention the translator’s name, however, some apparently require their writers to indicate somewhere in the review that the book under consideration has been translated from another language, and with some few outstanding exceptions, this burdensome necessity is taken care of with a single dismissive and uninformative adverb paired with the verb “translated.” This is the origin of that perennial favorite “ably,” but I wonder how reviewers know even that much. It usually is clear from the review that, like the writer mentioned in the previous paragraph, most of them do not read the original language, and sometimes I doubt that they have even read the translation. This deadly shallowness leads me to ask: “Ably” compared with what?
It seems that a book like this—one with such a provocative title—is written and published with the intent of correcting something, probably the aforementioned fact that there’s frightfully little work in translation published in this country, and that translators aren’t granted due respect. So for this book to do any good it has to be directed at someone other than the already-prone-to-loving-translations crowd. Not only directed at, but capable of convincing someone antithetic to Grossman’s beliefs.
Of course, there are plenty of people for Grossman to speak to; most of mainstream publishing would be a good place to start. “Economic Censorship” is one of the most frequently cited reasons for why so little literature in translation is published in this country: we’re capitalist to our core, and since translations (supposedly) cost more to publish than books written in English and sell far fewer copies, publishers can make more money by ignoring these sorts of books. This keeps readers happy (best-seller lists prove that most people want to read books by Americas and Brits, right?) and keeps shareholders happy (more sales equals more profits). And it’s all much easier than trying to figure out how to acquire, edit, and promote, a “difficult” novel by an obscure Hungarian writer.
This scenario—although never explicitly laid out in Why Translation Matters—is what’s behind a lot of Grossman’s rants. Essentially, as commercial publishers have hit capitalist overdrive, it’s become nearly impossible to posit a world where freelance translators are able to make a decent living for their work. Even harder to imagine a world where these books are adequately discussed by the critical pillars of book culture, where they’re put on display for hoards of potential readers, where readers actually enjoy and appreciate these titles. Grossman has a billion targets to go after, but her main thrust tends toward laying into big, mainstream publishers who won’t risk translations—even though they’re the only publishers with the financial backing to make some potential translations a reality.
For most houses, translated works are not of compelling interest regardless of the wider significance readers and writers may find in them. Frequently, in fact, translations are actively discouraged. They can be commercially successful (think of the cachet enjoyed in this country by The Name of the Rose; Beowulf; Don Quixote; anything by Roberto Bolaño), and still the majority of American and British publishers resist the very idea of translation and persistently hold the line against the presence of too many translated works in their catalogues. Some years ago, to my most profound consternation, I was told by a senior editor at a prestigious house that he could not even consider taking on another translation since he already had two on his list.
Grossman knows as well as I do that it’s almost impossible to get these sorts of publishers to change their ways. Yes, they do publish some amazing books, and yes, a few of the houses really do try and pay attention to the rest of the world. But the arguments that Grossman puts forth here—the impact translated literature and foreign ideas can have on writers, that literature is one of the best ways to understanding other cultures—are arguments that could be bunched under the idea that publishing international literature is a “moral obligation.” Yes, I’m painting with a broad stroke here, but having had conversations with executives at these very publishing houses Grossman lambasts, I know how they view these sorts of statements. Yes, that’s all fine and good, but we exist to make money, publish books people want. That sort of thing is for nonprofits and university presses.
Which is what’s happened over the past few decades. Approximately 85% of the fiction and poetry published in translation every year is from the small houses—the indie presses, the nonprofits, the university publishers. These presses tend not to have much marketplace power, tend to be undercapitalized, and tend to “take risks” on books they love and feel are good for culture, if not for business.
Yet for all their good intentions, the biggest obstacle these presses face isn’t finding cash, or talent, or whatever—it’s finding readers for their books. Shelf space can be hard to come by, as can review coverage. Suddenly, translations are fighting a double-uphill battle . . .
That’s why parts of Why Translation Matters feel a bit misguided. It’s not that Grossman is wrong in her critique so much that rather than rail against all the injustices of the book industry, we should instead focus on putting readers at the center of this discussion. A lot of publishing decisions are dictated by half-formed beliefs about the “reader” and what she likes. And in theory, readers are the one part of the book ecosystem that would be easiest for Grossman to reach; that is, the easiest group to convince that “translation matters.” After all, movements like “slow food,” farmers’ markets, and eco-consciousness have all had great successes in targeting consumers over producers. Just as with produce and cars, if readers catch the passion of someone like Grossman and actually start paying more attention to the world of literature in translation, everything else has to shift. Rather than trying to change supply, we could instead focus on increasing demand.
But how do you convince the general “reader” that translated lit is worth spending money on and time with? Here, Grossman’s critique is less striking. For instance:
Committed readers realize at a certain point that literature is where we have learned a good part of the little we know about living. . . . Over the years, as I have continued to explore the world of fiction, the kind of perception that grows out of and is nourished by reading keeps expanding until it spills over into ordinary, concrete life. Haven’t you thought on more than one occasion that in a kind of authorial prescience on the part of some writers, or with a Borgesian creation of fictional realities within the confines of a physical, concrete actuality, certain scenes and conversations on the street, in restaurants, or on trains come right out of novels by Turgenev or Kafka or Grass? And haven’t you realized with a start that whatever ways you may have devised for responding to those situations probably come from the same novels too?
One of the aforementioned trappings in trying to convince people that literature in translation is important is the “it’s good for you” argument. As an obsessive, life-long reader, it’s easy to assume that everyone else must feel the same way. My life would be wholly different if my mind hadn’t been blown by Julio Cortázar when I was in my twenties. I wouldn’t see patterns everywhere if I hadn’t internalized The Crying of Lot 49 to the degree that I have. Isn’t this true for everyone?
Unfortunately, I suspect the vast majority of people read for entertainment, not to improve or alter their outlook on life. (I know, beating a dead horse, but just look at the popularity of Twilight.) To a lot of people, the above argument about reading books to expand your outlook on life makes literature sound like medicine. I read at school to learn, I read at home because there’s nothing good on TV.
The same can be said for the “reading about another country makes it hard to go to war with them” argument. This may well be true, but you’re already singling out a pretty enlightened group of readers capable of expanding their empathy through the written word.
For better or worse (and in my opinion, it’s definitely for better), the majority of books published in translation are works of so-called “high literature.” With so little making its way into our culture, what tends to get published from other countries really is the best of the best. And with the smaller, very literary houses doing these books, the “best” tends to be defined by concepts of modernism and high-minded art.
Literary fiction (with special emphasis on the “literary”) faces a similar problem: if people want to read for entertainment, why would they ever pick up a long, complex, challenging novel?
Translations face a couple added obstacles when trying to reach a wide audience. First off, there’s the built in prejudice against international lit. It’s hard, it’s obscure, it’s depressing, it’s filled with historical events I don’t know about and names I can’t pronounce. On top of that, the media loves to identify and heap praise upon young, ambitious American writers who are advancing the modernist agenda and writing what could be the Great American Novel. Aside from Bolaño and maybe Sebald, that sort of media attention is rarely granted to someone from abroad.
Granted, this is a pretty pessimistic view—people only read for entertainment, which means they read crap, and how can we overcome?—but I’m actually pretty hopeful. There always have been and always will be pockets of individuals who believe in the power of literature. In the past, these people may have felt like they’re on an island (such as I did growing up in Bay City, Michigan, with one shitty bookstore and maybe two friends who loved to read real literature), but thanks to the dozens of technological advances that are altering and enhancing our lives, it’s suddenly become possible for literature lovers around the world to connect with one another, and to find out more quickly, easily, comprehensively about works that might interest them. This sort of focus—not on trying to grow an audience by catering to the current system of stackable schlock and soulless big box stores, but on getting the right info to the right readers in the right way—may be the key to growing a larger audience of appreciators of international lit. This will take time, but working on the fringes of the system seems much more possible than convincing the corporate behemoths of modern life to wise-up and help American readers connect with the larger world.
Why Translators Matter
If Grossman’s arguments about the marketplace don’t sound as fresh as they might, her ideas on translation theory are solid. In fact, one of the strongest parts of this book is the attention Grossman pays to the job a translator does. She really engages with the idea of the role of the translator, seeking out an appropriate metaphor for the way a book moves from one language to another. Her tendency is to put a lot of emphasis on the translator’s creativity, claiming that the words you read in translation are the translator’s as much as they are the author’s:
One of the brightest students in a seminar I taught recently asked whether, in The Autumn of the Patriarch, we were reading Rabassa or Garcia Marquez. My first, unthinking response was “Rabassa, of course,” and then a beat later, I added, “and Garcia Marquez.” The ensuing discussion of how difficult it is to separate the two, and what it meant to us as readers, writers, and critics to make the attempt, was one of the liveliest and most engrossing we had that semester.
This anecdote brushes up against the unresolvable argument of whether a translation should be true to the original (oft meant in a more literal sense), or if it should be made more readable to the target audience. Grossman posits “fidelity” as the ultimate goal, and then defines it in a few ways:
Fidelity is the noble purpose, the utopian ideal, of the literary translator, but let me repeat: faithfulness has little to do with what is called literal meaning.
To my mind, a translator’s fidelity is not to lexical pairing but to context—the implications and echoes of the first author’s tone, intention, and level of discourse. Good translations are good because they are faithful to this contextual significance.
Borges also reportedly told his translator not to write what he said but what he meant to say.
I do not have a grand, revelatory solution to the puzzle, even thought essays like this one make an attempt to resolve the conundrum, but I think authors must often ask themselves the same question that is so difficult to articulate, must often see themselves as transmitters rather than creators of texts.
This thread may well be the most important aspect of Why Translation Matters. It’s a well-documented issue that translators are invisible, are left off of book covers, are underpaid and often excluded from best receptions, but that’s all bullshit. Translators make this whole enterprise run, and the more empowered and appreciated they are, the more likely it is that the number of translations published in the U.S. will increase. Academia could do a lot for the cause of the translator, both in terms of providing translators with a so-called day job, and also by advancing the study of translation as a whole:
It has been suggested to me by an academic friend who is not a translator but is an indefatigable critic, editor, and reader, that translation may well be an entirely separate genre, independent of poetry, fiction, or drama, and that the next great push in literary studies should probably be to conceptualize and formulate the missing critical vocabulary. That is to say, it is certainly possible that translations may tend to be overlooked or even disparaged by reviewers, critics, and editors because they simply do not know what to make of them, in theory or actuality.
One of my main pleasures in reading this book was coming across intriguing statements such as that. Grossman’s an amazing person—one of the greatest translators ever and smart to an intimidating degree—and although I’m not convinced this collection will right all wrongs and instantly expand our exposure to literature from around the world, I think this is a valuable book and a valiant effort to explain the importance of translation.
What would be interesting—to me at least—would be to expand this discussion with short essays/brochures by other people involved in the book industry, such as a publishing executive explaining the finances and the myth of how expensive translations are, or a bookseller discussing the ways in which people come to pick up international literature, or a reviewer articulating the challenges in covering translations. For translation to truly matter it has to become an integral part of the overall conversation about literature, books, and reading.
Chad Post is the publisher of Open Letter Books.
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