Why Literature in Translation is SUPER SUPER IMPORTANT

Most everyone who reads this blog has a good grasp on the importance of literature in translation. You learn about other cultures, their writing styles, what drives them spiritually and politically, what kinds of house pets they may or may not eat or wear occasionally as clothing, how they really feel about things like Speedos or public intoxication (note: OR, not AND), etc.

But let’s whittle that down a step or two, make the direction this is going in more specific. What is also important is to realize the specific significance of translating world literature into wider-read languages, in this case English. All arguments about how English being the prime international language of choice aside, translating world literature into English is a way to immediately introduce great works to a much, much broader audience. An audience that may read the English translation, say “OMG MY COUNTRYMEN NEED TO READ THIS,” and then go on to bring said work of world literature to their country, which may in turn make the book available to more audience in much the same way. “Audience” applies both to general readers and publishers.

A few days ago we at Open Letter received an email from Hohe Publishing, an Ethiopian publishing house, asking for information on Latvian author Inga Ābele’s High Tide: they had read the English translation, enjoyed the book, and now were interested in acquiring rights for an Ethiopian edition. A few days after that, we received an email from the Latvian publisher, Dienas Grāmata, that Hohe Publishing had made an offer, and that they were planning on translating from the English version of the book . . .

This is an example of two very significant purposes for getting world lit translated, and translated into English. Not only does this English language version of the book allow the Latvian press to shop it around to other foreign publishers (much in the same way a translation sample does, except times 500), but it also gives rights-interested foreign presses another source language option from which to translate the book. How many Latvian-to-Amharic translators are there? Probably only one. Somewhere. BUT—how many English-to-Amharic translators are there? Probably more than one.

I don’t mean to imply that, in the case of High Tide, the Swedish translation of the novel is without benefits—the Swedish translation would obviously open doors to other Scandinavian countries. But again . . . how many Swedish-to-Amharic translators are there? It’s with good reason that we ask foreign publishers for French, German, or Spanish language samples of books in the event an English sample is not available. What English (and these other languages) does is function as kind of an infinite hour-glass shape: it first expands the readership, which then slowly narrows back down and trickles through to “smaller” languages, which in turn opens back up and expands yet again to a new group of readers. And so on and so forth. The course these metaphorical grains of sand take will vary, and though their destinations do as well, there’s no real “point of disembarking” because we’re talking about the general lifespan of a work, of which the grains are an integral part, and which, in this infinite-hourglass-shape in my brainspace, will take part in a never-ending, forward-moving cycle.

The importance and benefits to getting world literature into translation are countless. For Inga Ābele, it means that her book will be read by yet another audience that would have otherwise remained, most likely, unreached. It seems completely random and it kind of is, because ETHIOPIA, but things like this wouldn’t be possible without literary translation (or the awesome publishers that help bring these books to more readers around the world). Translated literature not only opens the door for readers of a respective language, but it also points the way to myriad other doors leading to other languages.

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