Chad’s thorough investigation of the economics of publishing translations all over the world based on the PEN/Ramon Llull To Be Or Not To Be Translated report has left me amazed that people bother to translate books, since the business is so unreliable and financially risky. Highly deserving literary voices are passed over every day because of a decision based on money, politics, or something else completely unrelated to the quality of the narrative. Since there is such a small amount of works that become translated, the ones that do exist are forced in to a role they probably weren’t intended to take: to be the representative voice of their nation. It’s hard not to think that Columbia is exactly like Macondo when Gabriel García Márquez is the only Columbian writer available in English. As a student studying Spanish and Literature, the only real exposure I had to Spanish culture before I studied abroad in Madrid was from García Lorca—and I am extremely glad that Madrid isn’t anything like the repressive female nightmare in La casa de Bernarda Alba.
Recently, Chad gave me a few Traveler’s Literary Companions published by Whereabouts Press in Berkeley, CA. Whereabouts realizes that cultures around the globe are seriously misrepresented by the one or two books that actually make it as a translation. They print compilations of short stories written by a varied collection of authors from a single nation, which leads the reader on a literary tour that allows a deeper insight into the culture than any guide book could ever provide. These stories focus on the specificities that make a culture unique, through nuances and subtleties that can only be expressed in the form of a narrative.
The best thing about these compilations is that they feature a large number of authors that are generally unknown to American audiences. Authors that have never been translated get equal billing to literary heavyweights, which shows that the any one cultural narrative cannot be represented by a single author or a single famous book that happens to have made it through the strange politics of translation.