To Be Translated or Not To Be: Case Studies — Argentina

Part of our ongoing look at the PEN/Ramon Llull To Be Translated or Not To Be report, this week we’re looking at the included case studies from countries around the world. Yesterday it was The Netherlands, today Argentina.

The story in Argentina is almost tragic. As Gabriela Adamo—the author of this case study and the director of the Buenos Aires Book Fair “Editor’s Week”—states at the beginning of the essay, the golden age for publishing in Argentina was the 1940s, 50s, and early 60s. Thanks to Franco, a lot of publishers set up shop in Latin America, publishing some of the most exciting and interesting literature from around the world.

This would be unthinkable today. The military dictators and economic crises that devastated Latin America over decades eventually led to the ruin of local publishers, while Spain’s recovery and entry as a full member into the European Economic Community meant that it would become a new leader—at least in commercial terms—int he world of Spanish-language books [. . .]

It is not surprising, then, to note how desperate Latin-American writers are to see their works published in Spain, which they regard as the only real gateway into the international world.

The economic crises of the early 2000s had an interesting impact on what’s available in Buenos Aires and from whom. Pre-devaluation, the big transnational publishers were able to import books from Spain and stock the bookstores with their titles. After devaluation though, these titles became extremely expensive, creating a space for small, independent publishers in Argentina, which “had previously been virtually unable to find a space for presenting their books.”

As a result of all this, translations increased and in 2004, of the 16,638 titles published in Argentina, 2,318 (or 14%) were in translation. Of course most were from English 1,139 (or 49%).

In terms of the status of translators, Argentina is one of those countries where historically the great authors were also great translators. For example, Borges translated Faulkner and Kafka, and even today Cesar Aira is not only respected for his literature, but for his translations as well. (I know that this idea of author-translators is one that Michael Orthofer is keen on and brings up occasionally in relation to German literature.)

Of course, although some of the greatest Argentine writers were also great translators, the worldwide disregard for translators prevails:

In general, translators are very badly paid, they do not sign contracts with their publishers or, if they do, they must accept very tough conditions such as ceding author’s rights.

In contrast to The Netherlands, France, Germany, even Spain and Catalonia, there are some unique challenges Argentine literature faces, namely the “almost zero support given by the state to publishing activities” resulting in basically no subsidies for foreign publishers interested in translating Argentine literature, and the fact that very few Latin American publishers have foreign rights departments. (And there really aren’t many agents in Latin American either—most of the ones I know who represent Latin American authors live in Spain or Germany.)

All of which means that some of the great twentieth-century Argentine writers—Roberto Arlt, Rodolfo Walsh, Leopoldo Marechal, Silvina Ocampo, Antonio Di Benedetto, Marcelo Cohen, Rodolfo Fogwill, Abelardo Castillo, Hebe Uhart, Eduardo Belgrano Rawson, etc., etc.—are insufficiently translated.

There are two very exciting things going on though that are helping to change this: Letras Argentinas and Editor’s Week.

Letras Argentinas is foreign rights office for a group small and medium-sized publishers. They have a great website and represent some very good authors. LA was founded in 2004, and hopefully will continue to grow in future years. (What I’d personally like to see are sample translations of some of the authors featured on the site.)

Semana de editores (or “Editor’s Week”) is a program sponsored by Fundacion TyPA in Argentina. Each April, 10-11 editors and translators from around the world visit Buenos Aires and spend a week meeting with publishers, critics, editors, and the like. It’s almost a crash course in Argentine culture and publishing . . . Past U.S. participants have included Esther Allen and Barbara Epler of New Directions, and this year I’ll be going on this trip along with a host of interesting people, including Nick Caistor, who has translated a number of great Latin American authors.

So things are looking up for Argentina, which I think is fantastic. The country has a great literary history, and the few authors we have our eye on are absolutely astounding . . . but more on that later.

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