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Why We Need Literary Translation Now

by Dan Simon

(* Adapted for the fall 2003 issue of Publishing Research Quarterly from a talk presented at the First “Publishing Scandinavian Literature in Translation: Focus on Sweden” Conference, April 24, 2003, at the City University of New York, midtown campus, sponsored by the Center for Publishing at New York University and the Consulate General of Sweden in New York.)

A Seven Stories author, the American novelist Barry Gifford - who, curiously, is widely read nearly everywhere in the world except here in his homeland, the U.S.A., where his books take place - was telling me yesterday that whenever he arrives in a new city he seeks out that city’s worst newspaper. Barry explained there were two reasons for this: first, the worst paper always has the best sports section.

Second, you can learn things about a place from reading its worst paper that you’ll never learn from reading its best paper. I want to suggest that America right now is a little like the world’s worst newspaper. The things we can learn from reading it aren’t new, even though they are shocking. And as we in the literary business arrive in this new city that the world has suddenly become, once we’re done with expressing our dismay at what a bad newspaper it is, we may find that we can read it instructively. I want to argue that literary translation has never been more important than it is in the world today. If we, as citizens of the world, are going to be forced every day to sit with our coffee and toast reading the world’s worst newspaper, then what will be the counterpoise to that morning poison? Before I discuss the importance of literary translation in America, I’d better state what is better known and more apparent, which is the problem of, or may I say, the problematical aspects that encircle, literary translation today—and it is undeniable that literary translation has never been more problematic than now. I love the word problematic, by the way. It suggests something that is surrounded by problems but isn’t necessarily, itself, a problem. And that is the case here: literary translation is imbedded in a surround of ends that don’t necessarily meet, of connections that don’t necessarily get made, because the marketplace gatekeepers aren’t easily persuaded to have a passionate regard for literary vessels traveling from afar. (The marketplace itself, though, is somewhat different from how those who are its power players perceive it to be. It has, thankfully, a mind of its own. More on that in a moment.) It is easy enough to name key components of the problems that surround literary translation in the marketplace. Let’s try and enumerate them:

  • centralized buying at the large bookstore accounts;
  • the decreased importance of reviews as a selling tool (even though, it is important to add, reviewers and book review editors are still our vanguard out there in the world, insisting upon the importance of literature generally and literary translation in particular. Reviewers do heroic work making sure that Americans hear about literature in translation, and are paid shamefully little for the honor; case in point, the review in The New York Times this morning by Richard Eder of Gunter Grass’s new novel. Eder, by the way, is a thoughtful and literary man who writes knowledgeably and with passion);
  • mergers, which are creating ever fewer ever larger publishing houses. The larger they become the less they are able to provide fertile ground for literature and least of all for literary translation;
  • then there is the “mediatization” of literature here, which means an author is a very good writer if he or she has a pretty face and a television show or an acting career or some other “platform.” This is very bad for literary translation, because it almost never happens that foreign-speaking authors are going to be media-genic in that sense. “What’s wrong with you, you can’t speak English?” A writer who doesn’t speak English must be very stupid indeed;
  • then there is the problem of the cost of translation to the publisher. Although it is, obviously, a legitimate cost, publishers rarely look at it that way. It appears on the cost sheet as a kind of additional insult, an expense of thousands of dollars that “normal” books don’t have, and which makes work by American authors look more virtuous by comparison;
  • and finally there is the cost of translation to the translator. Only very rarely is it possible to really allocate sufficient funds for translators. In the case of the newest García Márquez novel, yes. But otherwise, mostly, translators are paid distressingly little. And this creates a chilling effect. It is a lot to expect translators to produce sublimely beautiful versions when they are paid so poorly. Literature requires great translation. A music must be found in the new language. Routinely, translators go the extra mile and create that new music for the work. This means that they, too, are heroes in this struggle.

And remember that one of the reasons literary translation is so important in these drab days dominated by frivolous war-making in the political realm, is the way the extra human effort contributed by authors, publishers, reviewers and translators—not to mention readers—proposes an alternative human model of peaceful production.

Interestingly, and importantly, even when we list more or less exhaustively the problems in the surround that make literary translation problematic in the marketplace, none of the obstacles evoke difficulties between writers and readers. These are all problems of the marketplace only. And I think this is a very hopeful fact.

American readers have no essential problem with either the language of literature in translation, nor with the values or the aesthetics of literature in translation, nor with the leaps of the imagination required of readers when they meet literature in translation full on. In fact this is exactly the experience of literature readers are looking for: to be introduced to news from imaginary worlds, to discover new places and people. When Grass or Saramago or García Márquez, or, I hope, the Swede Niemi when we introduce him here next fall, is made available to the reading public in America, people are grateful for the reading experience, for the relief, for the difference, the new life, for the news from afar. Isn’t that what reading is, after all, the transmission of news from afar, the emotional news to remind us that mostly we are all tugging at the same rope, and being whipped by the same winds and blinded by the same sun? Americans go out and buy literature in translation in large numbers, so long as they hear about it. When José Saramago won the Nobel Prize, 50,000 Americans went out and bought his newest novel, Blindness. I heard many people who had read it speak about the joy of discovery and the pleasures of the text for them. I didn’t hear anyone complain that they had trouble understanding it or who felt they hadn’t gotten their money’s worth.

It helps of course if there is a Nobel Prize as part of the promotional plan. And we publishers can’t generally engineer that type of miracle, though I know people sometimes suspect we have our ways. But let’s remember that prizes are important for one reason. It is because ordinary people, readers, are actively seeking signs that can lead them to important new literary work. Were it not for that desire on the part of readers, prizes would be empty occasions. And as recently as a decade ago, major prizes meant much less than they do today. Their advent as sales-makers is a recent phenomenon. I used to know the French publisher of the entire collection of Nobel Prize winners, and he was not a wealthy man. And there is a publisher here in New York, a great independent publisher, George Braziller, who can tell you how few copies books by Nobel Prize-winning authors used to sell. Americans today are believers in the imagination, today as never before. Remember, we too have to read the world’s worst newspaper every day, and in a way that poison is worse for us than it is for you in Sweden or elsewhere because we can’t help feeling that we are in some part responsible for how dreadful the newspaper is. And because we understand that our particular world, our democracy, this country, was itself a work of the imagination, as fantasized by the framers of the Constitution, and then refined and re-tuned by writers of the imagination like Walt Whitman—who, of course, is translated throughout the world.

Readers of poetry here read Tomas Tranströmer in translation, by the way, and they do so exactly as easily and fluidly as they read Whitman. Serious readers of poetry may not number in the millions, but even numbering just a few thousand, they are our teachers, they are themselves writers, they are translators of course. And so Tranströmer here is certainly an influence. And it may be that he, a great poet, is one of the best known Swedish names in America, after Ikea I guess. And there again, the counterpoise. If we are going to have Ikea as a Swedish import, there had better be a Tranströmer and a Niemi, to remind us that the world has not yet become all business.

America is not a homogeneous country, and this is also a very important fact when it comes to the place of literary translation here. We are the exact opposite, an amalgam of foreignness. Every American is from somewhere else. In fact, this may be our one true great strength, the ability to receive and absorb foreign influences. We are a country founded by criminals and outcasts mostly, a country whose ruling classes have always had real trouble controlling the ruled classes. As Ann Douglas has written about so eloquently in her book Terrible Honesty, African-American culture was the most productive creator of culture in the twentieth century, with jazz most notably. We are a country of immigrants who ended up feeling they were immigrants no longer. All that America is is voices that came here from afar. Obviously, this would suggest that literary translation can speak to the very heart of American culture.

And if our great strength is our ability to receive and absorb foreignness, it is only a strength because of a certain quality of openness on the part of Americans that goes with it. That openness is our best quality. We are in danger of losing it now to fear and hate. If militarism is replacing entertainment as our foremost export, I would go so far as to say that we Americans are culturally incomplete without literary translation and the other expressions of cultural openness without which the door to our own best qualities would be closed. Perhaps because our history is as short as it is, we require foreignness to be whole, to be ourselves.

And now as we become, at least momentarily, the world’s only superpower, willing to exercise our will around the world by force if necessary—and even when not necessary—as this imperialism impoverishes us culturally, as it takes us away from our identity day by day—which it really is doing, make no mistake about it—then we begin more and more to be defined by our response to this situation. As what it means to be American is emptied of meaning, day by day, perhaps irretrievably, by our president and his cronies, so the importance of the response, of the counterpoise, of acts of openness to foreignness, and of literary translation in particular, looms larger and larger. So the question then becomes a very practical one: how can we sell these books? How can we get attention for them? It is a banal problem. It is one we can solve because, beyond the banal, there is a rightness to the possible role of literary translation in America, a willingness as I’ve said on the part of readers to experience this work. So the good news is that it is possible. Harcourt does the best job among us, I believe. But New Directions, The New Press, Seven Stories, and many others try very hard and succeed surprisingly often.

We will try in the fall with a novel by Mikael Niemi called Popular Music from Vittula. We will do everything we can think of to make sure people hear about it. We will not treat it as literature in translation, but just as a book by a writer. And in the end Americans will discover that a magical childhood in the far north of Sweden can be as close as the palms of their hands.

Daniel Simon, NYC, April and May, 2003