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Intriguing Questions about Translation and Culture

Over at today’s Publishing Perspectives, there’s an interesting piece by translator Burton Pike about “Cultural Homogeneity and the Future of Literary Translation.” This essay was written in preparation for a German Book Office panel discussion, and as such, it focuses more on bringing up issues and asking provocative questions—ones that will fit in well with the class I’m teaching this semester, and would be fun to reflect on and respond to . . . But for now, here’s just a few bits that I found interesting (really, you should just read the whole article):

I used to tell my students in translation courses that in preparing to translate a writer they could never know enough about the writer’s culture. But looking at the writing coming out of Europe now, I’m not so sure. Now I ask myself: What other culture? Or, what other culture? A creeping homogenization is developing in prose fiction, a kind of generic international content and style that transcends national borders. A broad horizontal culture seems to be replacing vertical national cultures. [. . .]

American scholars and students who discuss French or German philosophers or continental European theory frequently see no need to consult foreign sources in the original language, or to take into account what circumstances and cultural traditions in the original language might lie behind them: a colleague of mine once described contemporary English departments as “the monolingual in pursuit of the multicultural.”

In an interview in Austria Kultur, the cultural magazine published by the Austrian government, the writer Jakob Lind describes himself as “a Viennese-born Dutchman turned Israeli with an Austrian passport, Eastern European parents.” Lind lives in England, writes in German. If I translate him, what culture am I translating?

I’m not sure what direction this took in the panel discussion, but what’s always interested me (mostly because of the publishing angle), is the way that authors around the world ape current trends in Anglo-American fiction in hopes of getting their work translated into English. That sounds a bit dismissive and damning, but I remember talking with editors in Germany a dozen years ago and having someone remark, “[Germans] used to write those experimental novels, now we write like Americans!” Which totally bummed me out. The retaining of something unique about a country’s “book culture” is something I think is extremely important. And in some ways, it’s the responsibility of (certain) publishers to help preserve this by publishing and promoting works that are “uniquely French” (if there is such a thing), or at least not “from France, but just like Freedom!” Otherwise, what’s the point?



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