22 October 08 | Chad W. Post

This post originally appeared on the Frankfurt Book Fair blog.

(Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like the English-language version of this brochure—”* Great Translation by the Way”—is available for download from the NLPVF site. Here’s the Dutch version and if anyone can find the English, please let me know. And apologies for the redundancy of the opening paragraph of this post.)

Literature in translation–and all that goes into producing, publishing, and promoting literature in translation–is a huge interest of mine. (See my U.S. blog Three Percent and/or Open Letter, the publishing company I run.) So I was extremely excited to come across “* Great translation by the way” by Martin de Haan and Rokus Hofstede, a brochure on display at the the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature stand.

This is a fascinating booklet that builds off of some of the ideas in the “To Be Translated or Not to Be” report that was issued from PEN America and the Ramon Llull Institut at last year’s Fair, focusing on the current situation of transltion in the Netherlands, and proposing a set of directives that the European Union should implement to help preserve and cultivate a “flourishing translation culture.”

The title and the purpose are explained in the opening:

” ‘Great translation by the way.’ It is with off-hand comments like these that book reviewers typically dismiss the work of a translator–assuming, that is, that they mention the translator at all. Such cursory treatment makes painfully clear where translators stand in the literary pecking order: right at the bottom.

“This document is a pleas to set matters right and to give a central place to literary translation as a profession. This is a matter of some urgency, as the quality of translations from and into Dutch is under threat and a huge shortage of translators is looming.”

The “huge shortage of translators” problem exists throughout the world, with “meagre pay, low professional status and a lack of educational facilities” being the primary deterrents. Recently, Chinese publishers bought the rights to 60 Dutch works, which is fantastic on one hand, except for the fact that at the time there was only one living Dutch to Chinese translator . . .

Which, in my opinion, is a huge problem. Translated literature is a fantastic way to encounter other cultures and a way to exchange ideas, two concepts that are at the heart of what makes the Frankfurt Book Fair so special. (And at the heart of why Horace Engdahl said that America was too insular to participate in world literature. We publish a miniscule number of translations a year–approx. 330 new translations of adult fiction and poetry. Seriously.)

Maria Vlaar, the Deputy Director of the Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature, talked to me about this booklet, explaining that they published this booklet to create a roadmap of sorts for how the E.U. could support translation culture and help it grow in a way that’s more effective and ambitious than simply providing a couple thousand euros in translation subsidies. (Which is what they do now.)

After setting the scene, the booklet details five general recommendations, some specific to the Netherlands, others that apply to all of Europe: 1) establish a degree program in translation to and from Dutch, 2) support lifelong learning and professional development for translators, 3) boost the position of the translator by helping protect their rights and increase their pay and visibility, 4) provide funds to publishers doing “difficult” works that would otherwise flounder in the marketplace, and 5) encourage intercultural dialogue about translation.

One of the specific programs Ms. Vlaar is really big on is the creation and funding of “Translator Houses” throughout Europe. These Houses serve as a place where translators can go and live for a month to work on the translation their doing in the book’s country of origin. (For instance, someone translating a Spanish book in to Dutch could spend a month in Spain to research, increase their knowledge of the area, etc.) One of these houses exists in Amsterdam, and almost 50 translators a year are flown in and put up in one of five apartments where they can work. And a number are even given a 1,000 euro stipend to help with daily expenses. Her vision is that these Houses would exist throughout Europe, thus increasing cultural exchanges and growing the European network of translators.

What’s most interesting to me about her recommendations and ideas about how the E.U. could support this culture is the similarity to current marketing ideas and the shift away from only funding a specific product to funding a group of people who would directly impact the translation scene for years and years to come. Don’t get me wrong, all us publishers would still get our translation subsidies (sigh of relief), but at the same time the E.U. would also be supporting the education and opportunities for a wide number of people who are constantly in contact with publishers and authors, and often serve as “cultural ambassadors,” helping increase the number of translations published.

Thanks to this booklet and last year’s “To Be Translated or Not to Be” report, there is a growing awareness of the need to support literature in translation, and it’s great to see some specific, doable (post-bank bailout, of course–there will always be an economic pecking order) ideas being presented.

Copies of “* Great translation by the way” are available in English and Dutch at stand 6.0 B969.


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