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

Next up in our ongoing series about the PEN/Ramon Llull To Be Translated or Not To Be report is a look at the case study for Catalonia.

Even within the context of this report, Catalonia is in an odd position re: their literary tradition and translation. At a basic level, I’m not sure the general U.S. population is even familiar with Catalonia and realizes that a) it’s a region and not a separate country, yet b) the Catalan language is different from Spanish. It’s an important language, with a unique cultural heritage (especially considering that speaking Catalan was banned during the Franco years), and a ton of great art and literature.

Although the population of Catalonia is small, Catalan is the most widely-spoken minority language in Europe, since it has more than twelve million potential speakers if the population of the Valencia region and the Balearic Islands (within Spain), North Catalonia (in France), Alguer (in Sardinia), and Andorra (an independent country with Catalan as its only official language) are included in the count.

The fact that the major publishing center of Spain (both for works published in Spanish and in Catalan) is Barcelona (which is in Catalonia), is another odd twist to this situation and one of the contributing factors as to why over 90% of the translation from Catalan are into Spanish.

For example, in my opinion, one of the most interesting publishing operations in Barcelona is Quaderns Crema/Acantilado. Quaderns Crema publishes in Catalan; Acantilado in Spanish. Not always the same titles, although there is a decent overlap.

Going back to the fact that a decent number of works are translated into Spanish:

Contrary to what might be expected, Spanish does not function as a springboard for the introduction of a book into the literatures of other languages. Neither does translation into Spanish mean that a work originally written in Catalan will necessarily be accepted as part of the Spanish-language literary system.

Another odd thing about Catalonia is the status of the writers who live there, yet write in Spanish rather than Catalan. (Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Enrique Vila-Matas, and Nuria Amat are three high-profile examples.) The fact that Catalonia supports writers working in a particular language rather than living in a particular country was what led to all the hubbub about who was/wasn’t invited to the Frankfurt Book Fair last year.

I really don’t want to revisit that or really even comment on it, I just think this choice that writers living in Catalonia have to writer in one of two languages is another thing that makes the situation unique.

Translators into and out of Catalan play a huge role (maybe bigger than in any other country covered so far) in getting exposure for Catalan literature.

Many translators of works written in Catalan have become ambassadors for Catalan literature in their own countries. With their work as translators or as university teachers they have decisively contributed towards the introduction of Catalan literature into other cultures. These translators always work directly from the Catalan and their translations are being introduced into more cultures as new specialists discover the Catalan literary heritage.

Of course, translators aren’t treated as well as they could be for their efforts:

“The Spanish book market,” writes Peter Bush, “has a tradition of being very open to translations. This fact, however, hides the conditions which have made it possible for a great deal of translators to work for publishers used to publishing a lot of translations. This tradition is based on tight deadlines, low pay, no pay-rises, and dreadful contracts ( or sometimes even no contract), and all this within an economy where the cost of living has risen sharply due to Spain’s increased integration into the world economy.”

That said, things have been improving, thanks to new university programs in translation and the 1987 Intellectual Property Law, through which translators’ rights were established and contracts taken more seriously.

In terms of support and promotion, Catalonia is one of the model countries for how to increase awareness and appreciation of a literary tradition.

The Institute of Catalan Letters was created in 1987 to promote Catalan-language works, and since 1993 has offered grants for translations into Catalan.

The Ramon Llull Institute was created in 2002 and provides grants to foreign publishers interested in translating literature from Catalan. They’re easy (and fun) to work with, and are ubiquitous on the international publishing scene, especially after being the guest of honor at the Guadalajara Book Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair. They’re also flexible, open to ideas, and interested in hearing from foreign publishers about what works, what doesn’t, etc., all with the goal of promoting Catalan literature around the world.

And they create beautiful, useful publications about Catalan literature in four major categories: classics, contemporary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Actually, everything they produce is amazing in terms of style, design, and content. All of the Frankfurt materials were incredible, especially the Carrers de frontera book, which may well be the most gorgeous book I own.

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