25 April 12 | Chad W. Post

Over the past month, two new websites have launched that will likely be of great interest to Three Percent readers . . .

First up is the Biblioasis International Translation Series, which is updated every week or so with interesting translation-related content.

For example, their first post is an essay by Stephen Henighan entitled The Fall of Translation and which provides a cursory history of Canada’s relationship to publishing literature in translation and the eventual formation of Biblioasis’s translation series.

Above all, we were aware that there was a lot out there to translate because English is the most insular language in the world. From my own trans-linguistic reading, I was familiar with quantities of good writers whose works were available in half-a-dozen or more languages, yet not in English. Only Arabic-speaking cultures publish fewer translations than Anglophone societies, and the Arabs at least have the excuse that most of their citizens are poor and speak dialects as their mother tongues, which makes it difficult or impossible, without specialized training, for them to read the Classical Arabic in which books are published. English-speaking societies have no excuse for their disdain of the rest of the world’s literature. Many English-speaking countries are among the world’s most prosperous, most of our populations are reasonably well educated, and our literary language is only a heartbeat away from that spoken on the street. Unfortunately, as the inheritors of the two empires that have dominated the world for the last two hundred years—Great Britain and the United States—speakers of English are infected with the bizarre notion, which prevails nowhere else on earth, that their mother tongue is all they need to know to understand the world. Commentators invariably cite economics as the culprit for the paucity of translations in English, yet those same commentators tell us that in English-speaking countries economics is based on the market. If the market for translations in English is weak, this suggests the presence of certain innate characteristics in English-speaking culture, one of which is an ingrained disdain of foreigners and what passes for their culture.

Other more recent pieces include an excerpt from Liliana Hecker’s The End of the Story and an interview with the book’s translator, Andrea Labinger:

A great many factors conspired to make the translation of this book not only an ethical dilemma for me, but also an artistic challenge. Beginning with the title itself, the novel presents linguistic and moral ambiguities. As more than one critic has pointed out, historia means both “story” and “history,” while “fin” denotes “end,” in the sense of “conclusion” as well as “purpose. Deciding whether to call it “The End of the Story,” “The End of History,” “The Purpose of History,” et cetera, was just the beginning of the confusion. Not incidentally, I was also compelled to think about the word fin as it applied both to the protagonist, Leonora, and to me. Does the end justify the means? There are two questions here, obviously: Did Leonora’s desire to save her daughter’s life and that of her aging parents justify her betrayal; and on the more personal level, did my embracing this translation because I found – and continue to find – it so compelling justify my associating my professional reputation with a text that I know has incensed people whose politics I respect?

Adding to the complication is the fact that the novel is a piece of metafiction with three narrative voices, making it difficult for the reader to determine whose story is being told: that of Leonora Ordaz, the idealistic, young Montonera who becomes an agent of the junta; that of Diana Glass, Leonora’s childhood friend, an aspiring writer who tries to reconstruct her disappeared friend’s fate in novelistic form but who fails to make sense of a life that has dramatically diverged from its original path; or finally the third voice: that of Hertha Bechofen, an elderly writer and Austrian refugee whose own experiences as a survivor of totalitarian brutality make her view the entire situation with cynicism and moral detachment.

While you’re there, be sure and check out (and buy!) some of Biblioasis’s translations.

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Yale’s Margellos World Republic of Letters is another interested translation-centric website that just went online. Aside from collecting information about all of the books in the Margellos series, the site has a solid collection of “resources,” including an excerpt from Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters, an interview between Yale University Press director John Donatich and PRI’s Bill Marx, and an essay by Donatich about the Margellos series:

Here is a small (a very small) but nonetheless important fact. This year, nearly 300,000 books will be published in the United States. Guess how many of those were translations from other languages? Only 2% of the publishing activity in the English speaking world. And 2/3 of those publications were technical and instructional manuals. On the other hand, in many countries in Europe, in South America, in Africa, more than half of the books published are translated from other languages. That is significant. It is also confounding and should inspire us to rectify the situation. It is further evidence that those who accuse the U.S. of myopic arrogance may have a point. We aim to prove that market, critical, cultural and economic conditions need not be hostile to translations. We have a moral obligation to find the next Kafkas, Prousts, Dostoevskis, Garcia Márquezes and bring them to English readers.

There are some people who think that translation is the impossible art. Our own Robert Frost said that, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” I would counter by saying that what constitutes poetry is exactly what survives in translation—what is specific about a human voice in all its uniqueness, in all its resistance against the pressure to be conventional—is exactly what can be heard in translation. We must get rid of the false pieties that assert that translators, at best, need to be invisible. Translators must no longer be regarded as “a problematic necessity.” They must be
recognized as the artists they are.


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