12 February 08 | Chad W. Post

At Frankfurt last year, PEN and the Institut Ramon Llull released a report entitled To Be Translated or Not To Be regarding the “international situation of literary translation.” This report (which is downloadable in pdf format by clicking the link above) has gotten some decent attention online and is one of the most impressive worldwide studies of the state of literary translations. The report is full of statistics, information, opinions, and analysis, and because it’s such a rich and useful document, I think it’s worthwhile taking a week or so to go over it in more specific detail.

“Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.”—Paul Auster

The first part of the report—“Translation, Globalization, and English” by Esther Allen—is a brilliant overview essay of the state of translations, and one of those pieces that will be cited years into the future.

There are two main aspects to this section: 1) the depiction of English as an “invasive language” that serves as a mediating language between “smaller” tongues; and 2) current statistical information about the number of literary translations being published in English.

In terms of English as an “invasive language,” what Esther has to say is a bit disturbing, but not all that surprising. The English language now dominates the world to such a degree that kids in China and Chile are taught English from a very early age despite the fact that Spanish and Chinese are two of the top five most widely spoken languages in the world. English has become the language of business, and as a result, participation in the global economy is much easier for those who are fluent.

As a result, more than 3,000 languages are endangered:

David Crystal reports that of the 6,000 languages currently in existence, half will have died out within the next century. “It turns out,” he writes, “that 96% of the world’s languages are spoken by just 4% of the world’s people.” Only 600 of the world’s languages are not presently in danger.

The impact of this situation on literature should be fairly clear—a book published in English truly reaches a global audience, not just an American or British one. Because of this reach, English can serve as a sort of mediating language—books translated into English have a better chance of then being translated into other languages. (For example, the publisher of Bragi Olafsson’s The Pets paid to have this book translated into English, believing it much easier to sell the rights to a book with a English translation than to find someone capable of reading and evaluating the Icelandic original.)

So like most everything in the modern world, it’s both a bad and good thing that so many people speak English. It would be a much better situation if translation into English was more valued.

English’s indifference to translation is not merely a problem for native speakers of English who thus deprive themselves of contact with the non-English-speaking world. It is also a roadblock to global discourse that affects writers in every language, and serves as one more means by which English consolidates its power by imposing itself as the sole mode of globalization. [. . .] The real issue is not the English language itself, or its global scope, but the cultural forces within the language that are resistant to translation.

There’s no need to explain here the “cultural forces” that are resistant to translation—I think anyone reading this blog is pretty aware of the latent prejudices among reviewers, buyers for the chains, publishers, etc., that translations don’t sell. It’s more complicated than that, and one point Esther does make that is worth identifying is the status of translations in the academy. Typically translations are greatly undervalued in the academy (University of Rochester and a few other places being exceptions to the rule) and most scholars avoid mentioning the dreaded “t” word:

Faculty members who continue to publish translations sometimes do so under pseudonyms, for fear of seeing their scholarly reputations tainted, or simply leave the translations off their curricula vitae when career achievements are being evaluated.

What’s especially disturbing about this is that translators definitely aren’t valued by the marketplace (see the following post for statistics on how few books are published in translation), and if they aren’t protected in universities, they’re pretty much screwed. (Unless governments or private funders heavily subsidize literature in translation, but that’s another can of worms for another post.)


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