The Politics of Translation: A Discussion
ESTHER ALLEN: Cliff Becker of the National Endowment for the Arts has for several years been talking about our “national translation crisis,” which was reflected in a recent New York Times article headlined “America Yawns at Foreign Fiction.” The article quoted a publisher who said his press is cutting back on translations because they’re not economically viable. It’s extremely unlikely that any U.S. publisher would go on record saying work by women writers, or African or Asian American writers, or even Australian writers is not economically viable. And were any publisher to say such a thing, we can imagine the outcry that would ensue. But when publishers announce they’ll cut back on or cease to do translations, no one protests. Why?
It’s no wonder that discussions of translation in the United States tend to be gloomy. But for once, we have reason to celebrate: The community of people who support translations has been given an extraordinary gift by an anonymous friend of PEN, and this gift has the potential to make an extraordinary difference. There’s a precedent for this kind of support for translation that will give you an idea of what such a program can achieve—it’s called the Latin American Boom. In the 1950s, even the idea of Latin American literature barely existed in the United States. Alastair Reed discovered this midway through the decade, when he tried to interest four U.S. publishers in an Argentine writer named Jorge Luis Borges—who was already well known in France—and was told by all four that not only were they uninterested in Borges but they were also uninterested in publishing any Latin American writing whatsoever.
Obviously many factors contributed to the emergence of the Latin American Boom writers in the late 1960s, not least of which was Fidel Castro’s communist revolution in 1959, which focused U.S. attention on Latin America. However, one of the more decisive factors was David Rockefeller’s Center for Inter-American Relations, which for fifteen years, beginning in 1967, provided grants that funded the translation of more than seventy books. In 1970, a five-thousand-dollar grant from the Center paid for the translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. The boom successfully created, for the first time, a sphere of Latin American literary culture that was shared with the United States. Now, at the inception of the PEN Translation Program, I can begin to imagine the kinds of shared cultural spheres that might open up for us. I think of the boom and I have high hopes.
AMMIEL ALCALAY: I thought it might be appropriate to begin with a translation of a poem by the Bosnian writer Semezdin Mehmedinovic. He’s one of the rare writers who has come to this country and quickly grasped something very fundamental about it. “Open Dialogue” takes place on a train crossing the country after September 11, 2001.
“What are you reading?”
“Poems by Jallaludin Rumi, a
Poet born in Afghanistan.”
“Where are you from?”
“Serbs and Croats, right? Is anyone else there?”
“There are others.”
“What color are your eyes?”
“Green till Colorado
But since we passed Apache Canyon
They’re blue in the
New Mexico light.”
“So then what kind of Muslim are you?”
Texts that manage to break through the policing of our monolingual borders provide a mere taste, fragmented, of what such works might represent in their own cultural, linguistic, historical, and political contexts. A single novel or book of poems by a single writer removed from the cluster of other writers and artists from which it has emerged—stripped of biographies, gossip, debates, or critical studies—more often than not reinforces our uniquely military-industrial, New Critical approach to the work of art as an object of contemplation, rather than as part of a dense social, political, cultural, and historical fabric. In this country, we tend to talk about translations as if they were removed from either personal or collective politics.
Like any commodity, texts cross various borders, checkpoints, holding pens, and tariff stations along the way. And these are both internal and external: the picket lines we dare not cross in our own consciousness, in imagination, and the real political barriers that exist in the world. More translations from Hebrew than from Arabic are published in the United States despite the fact that there is only one very small, partially Hebrew-speaking country in the world, while there are more than a dozen larger Arabic-speaking countries. This imbalance can lead to confusion and misplaced emphasis, as when a prominent book reviewer writes, without debate or comment, something like this: “Choices and consequences are thrust upon the Israeli writer David Grossman, whether he wants them or not. There isn’t a more interesting novelist in the West today.” Given that Israel is situated along the Assyrian-African rift, which is actually in Asia, there is certainly geographical confusion. And one also wonders whether the choices and consequences thrust upon the Israeli novelist are of the same magnitude as those thrust upon writers living slightly to the southwest or slightly to the north—Mahmoud Darwish, to mention one.
Since the events of September 11, 2001, oppositional voices in this country have been concerned with exposing, publicizing, or drawing attention to what “they” are doing—at home, in Iraq, occasionally in Afghanistan, and other places. Very little energy has been spent examining how we got to this point, and whether we might take some individual and collective intellectual and political responsibility for it. Translation, an engagement with other parts of the world, seems to me a crucial aspect of this responsibility. But the American system presents real obstacles. We all know the saga of the consolidation and conglomeration of commercial publishing and the fact that we would hardly have any intellectual or literary life worth speaking of were it not for small and independent presses. We’re a little more hesitant to examine editing as a form of censorship that enforces social and political assumptions and silences—the kind of editing, for instance, that allows an Israeli novelist to be “Western.”
The freer space of independent publishing presents its own set of political problems. On the literary side, we tend to privilege texts that seem formally innovative at the expense of texts that appear more conventional but that might emerge from a more radical political consciousness. This creates a two-tiered literary neighborhood in which there are ethnic or political ghettos and experimental or sophisticated downtowns. Translators find it difficult to make a living without doing commercial work and small presses find it almost impossible to support the translation of nonliterary texts, since literary texts are sometimes taken on by passionate writers and can occasionally even be supported by grants.
Let’s consider the structures through which we sanction and legitimize knowledge, i.e., the university system, and its growth and disciplinary arrangement during the Cold War. To put it bluntly, the Western European languages were seen as the domain of legitimate culture, the Western tradition, while most other languages and the area studies accompanying them were seen as completely exotic or functioned as an arm of the State Department or the CIA. When writers and independent intellectuals abdicate responsibility over other languages and parts of the world, they help create a vacuum occupied by “experts”—a breeding ground for, at worst, disinformation and, at best, mythology. The extent to which this is true for ideas about the Middle East is astonishing. And the failure of American intellectuals—a true lack, not just of responsibility but of response on human, creative, historical, and political levels to the Arab world, Palestine, sanctions against Iraq, and so many other issues—has allowed ideologues and apologists to occupy disproportionate amounts of cultural and political space. If popular scholarly texts about the Arab world were generally available in translation, this space would not simply be handed over. There is a need for greater activism and advocacy by writers. This means following and reporting on what is happening in other languages and other countries, demanding to review books in other languages, and advocating for the appearance of other writers. In short, we have to give up some of our own space to make room for others.
When war or political oppression becomes the template through which we process translated writing, translators risk becoming collaborators, and not in a good sense, by bringing texts that resonated with meaning in the original context into a world of indifference or even hostility. Because of this, I think we have to seek poetic strategies that will help insulate such texts and attempt to reenact some of the conditions of urgency that accompanied their original appearance. Living as we are in the heart of the empire and using a language of such dominance, we must discover new ways to both renounce and take up power. The insularity of American intellectual life presents very real political problems, and writers have a crucial role to play in disturbing this deadly slumber. By repopulating cultural space with the banished and the obliterated, writers can reassert the absolute value of individual experience in a political context, as a political context, not as a road block to be avoided or ignored at one’s own peril. But even here, the act of transmission is not innocent, and must be permeated with a vigilance that recognizes, as the great American poet Jack Spicer once put it, that “there are bosses in poetry as well as in the industrial empire.”
MICHAEL HOFMANN: It’s been quite some time since I’ve felt much optimism about the prospects for foreign literature in English translation. For the last few years, I’ve been in despair. The ’80s, in retrospect, were a kind of Bronze Age. There was still room for the kind of felicitous miscalculation that made the appearance of certain books in English possible. It seems to me that these things were only ever done by mistake. The period we are now embarked on is an Iron Age, quite possibly a terminal phase. After it, we may expect a deluge—a deluge of nothing. Some venerable publishers seem quite unembarrassed about putting out catalogues that are wall-to-wall with English-language originals.
Obviously, publishing isn’t what it was: The bottom line has risen inexorably. But there are reasons, more profound even than the state of publishing. The principal factor is the size and spread of the English language, which offers readers a delusive self-sufficiency. Why bother with anything else, apart from a handful of nineteenth-century French and Russian novelists, when there is so much to read in English, whether from Manchester or Malibu Beach? Increasingly, it’s English that counts, not only in England and other English-speaking territories but also globally. Scores of English books get translated every year into every language under the sun and pitifully few come the other way. Effectively, English is running a colossal and intolerable surplus with the rest of the world. The abusive term “dumping,” from trade talks, comes to mind. This isn’t good for the rest of the world; nor is it good for English.
There is really nothing like the strange bi-authorship of translation—the hapless, resourceful, or wooden sense of words not deployed by a single hand according to instructions from a single mind. The demands on vocabulary and, less predictably, on syntax made reading Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude such an enlarging experience. Translation is the Other; it upsets expectations; it extends the field of comparison; it forces even the sluggardly to reevaluate and recontextualize. A period of good writing has to be a period of good and abundant translating as well. The fact that we’re not living in one leads me to qualify the large claims currently made for British and American poetry and fiction. It’s undeniable that this literature is written in a world language, but how much of it is world literature? The present low level of interest in translation prompts this question.
Of course translators should keep some modesty too. I can get very full of myself, but I’m a foot soldier, or a peasant. It only takes a little slip from the Internet, as I read “by Michael Hofmann, translated by Wolfgang Koeppen,” to make me blush. It doesn’t seem right to dictate or even to propose the terms and conditions of one’s own labor. If anything, I would say modest changes are all that one would envisage—the fisherman in Grimm asking for a sausage with his first wish. A lot of the time, it seems astounding to me that I’m left to do work like this at all. A little more security, a little more influence with publishers, a little more attention in the press, a little more (if this isn’t too pathetic) understanding in general for what it is one does—this slight adjustment is what a society like ours finds almost impossible. You could win the lottery first.
Contracts come, describing me as “labor for hire,” and I sign them. If it’s been made to gauge the length of the book and to pay me at a certain rate per thousand words, I’m asked to say whether a piece of writing gets longer or shorter as it goes into English from German. It gets shorter—but don’t tell anyone. Besides, even the words that don’t appear will have been translated. My name appears on the cover, on the title page, on the copyright page, but why bother if it’s only labor for hire? I like to think that my books have a collective identity that adds up to an imprimatur of what I bring to them. The labor-for-hire tag seems to suppose that anyone else would do the identical job if your dictionaries were the same. In fact, you wouldn’t do the same job two days running; I certainly wouldn’t. Translation is a human activity and you bring human fallibility and human distinction to it.
SUSAN SONTAG: People in this country understand that we’re a nation made up of foreigners; that’s our identity. And those of us who have chosen to live in New York City are in some sense all voting for the foreign. This is a city of foreigners, an international city. I sometimes think, when I’m feeling particularly cranky about the policies of my country or its government, “Well, at least I live in New York City,” which is a big ship anchored off the coast of the United States of America. It’s a world city, connected with the United States but not identical to it. And what makes it different is that it’s full of foreigners. But there’s an eternal dialectic here. We know we’re all foreigners and sometimes we’re proud of our foreignness, but at other times we see the foreign as something to be vanquished: Foreign is not us—and our judgment is the privileged one.
Some years ago, I was in Stockholm and was offered a tour of the precincts of the Swedish Academy. I protested to my publisher that I really didn’t feel like having this tour but was told that it would be rude to refuse it, that it was an honor to be shown the room where the deliberations were held and the room where the Swedish king bestowed the Nobel Prize for Literature. And so I did indeed have the tour and it was just as suffocating as I’d imagined, but I managed to be polite. At the end, the secretary of the Swedish Academy said, “I’m going to ask you now the question that I ask every well-known foreign author. If you could nominate one author who has not yet received the Nobel Prize, who would be your choice?” And I said, without a second’s pause, “Borges, of course.” And he said, “Oh, isn’t it odd how many of you foreigners like Borges?” I thought, Well, we “foreigners” are the rest of the world! And who are you? You’re Swedes! You’re ten million people and we’re all the rest! This dialectic between us and them—our sense of complacency about the rightness of our judgment—cuts across every sphere of cultural activity.
This dialectic is obviously relevant to the question of why there are so few translations now into English. One cannot ever underestimate the ascendancy of English as a world language, as the world language, but the consequences of this fact have yet to be fully absorbed by us. In India, for instance, there are sixteen official languages, but the language that people might have in common is the language of the conqueror, the colonial language. It is this language—the language spoken by the richest and most powerful nation that has ever existed in human history—into which large infusions of foreign literature are simply not being allowed to enter. I don’t think that you can separate the lack of interest in foreign translations from the hegemony of English. That is a point everybody makes; I just continue to brood over it and see it as more and more powerful.
I want to introduce one further idea. It’s not just the hegemony of English but something very particular about American culture: a distinctive American tradition that wants to break with the past, to be innovative, to not be influenced, to not be indebted to anyone. Read Emerson—and I say this as someone who adores Emerson and thinks he is one of the great minds of the nineteenth century—and you will see, in a very exalted way, the essential cultural elements, the ideological ingredients of an attitude that makes Americans extremely disrespectful of the foreign, which is identified with the past and the old. Read D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. You will see the enormous cultural war at the center of nineteenth-century American literature: fighting with Europe, fighting with the past, fighting with being influenced, fighting bookishness.
A vigorous anti-literary and anti-intellectual standard is at the center of American culture; Americans are constantly quarreling with the notion of the best, the masterpiece, the work that you ought to read. This attitude has gotten new reinforcement from various political factions, both on the right and on the left. American moralism is often at war with the idea of excellence. If we’re going to talk about the politics of translation, and what makes for the fact that someone can say Americans yawn at translations, we have to look at American resistance to the idea of achievement and of quality, the idea of standards in literature.
STEVE WASSERMAN: One cannot overemphasize the coarsening effect of a vigorous American anti-intellectual tradition, an egalitarian ethos that is suspicious of any hierarchy of talent, and that seeks to hold such notions hostage to commerce. Review publications in this country—those few of them that still exist—refuse, for the most part, to report the news of works from other cultures and other languages, partly because there’s a deep-seated suspicion of any names that look like bottom lines of eye charts. But it’s also because the measure of being an American, at least as it’s commonly understood if not so explicitly stated, has to do with the rapidity with which one sheds one’s attachment to the foreign. Think of Mark Twain’s amusing but unhappy piece called “The Awful German Language,” at the end of which he volunteers his services to the German government and promises that within six weeks, he’ll straighten everything out and verbs will no longer appear at the ends of sentences: Readers will know where they’re going from the get-go. There is an American attachment to plainspokenness that is deeply suspicious of the way other people talk. Why, if they have something serious to say, can’t they just do it in English? Why do they have to conceal it within the refuge of a language that is clearly in decline?
And so one arrives at this paradox: a totalizing metropolis country whose economy is most entangled with the economies and the fates of people the world over, but whose own people are becoming more and more parochial and provincial. It’s really quite astonishing. Aside from the pleasure and ardor of the aesthetic embrace of other ways of thinking, there is a utilitarian aspect, of course, that America ignores at its peril. Perhaps now, after 9/11, the impetus for subsidizing translations will be a self-interest that the Central Intelligence Agency will finally recognize. I’m reminded of this because of a recent review in the Times Literary Supplement by Gerard Prunier, one of the great French experts on the Central Lakes region in Africa. Prunier ends his informative and altogether compelling review by recalling that some years ago, at an international symposium on Uganda, an American colleague came up to him and said, “That was really an interesting talk. You should write a book.” Prunier had to explain that in fact he had authored thirty articles and a book on Uganda, but since French, once a world language, had now been relegated to a minor dialect, they had never been translated into English.
I want to consider for a moment the responsibility that people like me, who commission reviews of books in the American press, bear for this state of affairs. Some of the most interesting work that makes its way to my desk was originally written in another language. And it seems to me that my obligation is to bring to readers news they haven’t already heard. What would be the point of telling you what you already know—what’s already on the best-seller list? What if the front page of a newspaper avoids reporting on a coup in East Timor because its foreign editor believes that very few Americans will ever want to visit that country?
If works go unreviewed and unspoken about, how will readers know they exist? One could take solace in the historical fact that some important works do find their audience. Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind, for instance, was originally published in 1953 by Alfred A. Knopf. It sold a robust 2,300 copies over the next six years. However, its author, as everyone knows, would one day win the Nobel Prize, and his works have had an incalculable effect on the intellectual formation of people all over the world. Nonetheless, this is a perilous moment. We should give support and praise to those few presses, under siege themselves, that have become repositories of works in translation. We should certainly try to shame the commercial houses into commissioning more of them. Of course translators deserve to be paid a living wage. Of course a translation magazine deserves to exist. But I do think that all these notions are going against the grain. We should not underestimate the short-sightedness of the bottom-line overseers. Nor should we underestimate the difficulty of reversing the cultural weight of the deep-seated American suspicion of the Other and the deep-seated American anti-intellectual tradition, both of which remain alive and well.