18 February 08 | Chad W. Post

A couple weeks ago we linked to Lawrence Venuti’s article on Words Without Borders about the business of publishing translations. It’s a very interesting piece that was written for a panel on the To Be Translated or Not To Be report and puts forth a somewhat provocative stance on what should be published in translation:

I am suggesting that with translations publishers must take an approach that is much more critically detached, more theoretically astute as well as aesthetically sensitive. They must publish not only translations of foreign texts and authors that conform to their own tastes, but more than one foreign text and more than one foreign author, and they must make strategic choices so as to sketch the cultural situations and traditions that enable a particular text to be significant in its own culture.

Over the weekend, WWB posted an interview between Alane Mason and Venuti that explores some of these issues in depth.

The entire conversation is pretty fascinating and quotable, but this is the section that most stood out to me:

I expect PUBLISHERS, with the help of translators, to be making the publishing decisions, yet those decisions need to be made in a much more informed way than personal taste, even if that can’t be eliminated in any literary judgment. Or why not look at the problem as a matter of a publisher developing his or her taste by learning as much as possible about foreign literary traditions before choosing a foreign work for translation? The ignorance of foreign languages among US publishers is now legendary, but what about their knowledge of foreign cultures (a knowledge that cannot really be separated from language)? If a publisher can find one novel to like in a foreign literature, why not think that same publisher can find another one or three written by different writers at different times? Publishers are currently at the mercy of a selection process that in many cases may well be based on a severely limited or superficial knowledge of foreign cultures. Translations demand that a publisher know more, and translators can help, but they too need to know more about the foreign literatures from which they translate, and that more needs to be figured into their translating.

I pretty much agree with Venuti’s sentiment, although I may be biased by the fact that I have a touch of the OCD and love to research and read about different literary cultures.

One of the most useful activities I’ve engaged in—that plays into Venuti’s general idea—is going on editorial trips to various countries to learn at least a bit about a particular culture and its literary history and to network with international editors, critics, translators, and readers who can help me make informed decisions. Before going to Reykjavik and Barcelona, I knew next to nothing about Icelandic or Catalan literature. But the days spent listening to critics give me a rundown on the literary history of their county, of compiling lists of modern and contemporary authors, of meeting translators, editors, professors and the like who are all willing to share information about literary works and how these works were received was extremely, extremely valuable. (And to be honest, it doesn’t hurt that these two cities are two of the most beautiful on earth.)

I don’t claim to be an expert in either Icelandic or Catalan literature, but after reading tons and tons of information, and talking with various contacts made during these trips, I feel like I have a pretty good understanding of where the Icelandic (Bragi Olafsson) and Catalan (Merce Rodoreda and Quim Monzo) authors fit into their respective traditions, and that we’ve made pretty good choices.

On a practical side, this is just the beginning, and we need to continue to do more works from both countries, and to connect with other publishers (if there are any) doing books from these regions to help create a more well-rounded representation of Icelandic and Catalan literature. But at least we’ve taken some initial steps, both in terms of forethought and research, and making some works from these cultures available to English readers.

Anyway, these sorts of trips (we’re going to both Buenos Aires and Olso this spring on similar editorial research trips), are extremely valuable for anyone engaged in the business of publishing translations, and one example of how some of what Venuti’s calling for is actually taking place.

I can see why some people would criticize Venuti’s argument, or have a knee-jerk reaction against it. It may be both a bit utopic and a bit ivory-tower-ish all at once. On the whole though, I think that his end goal is very much in keeping with what the more admirable presses out there (by admirable, I mean ones with a mission other than to make as much money as possible) that are working together to create an audience for international literature. I only wish he left more space for readerly emotion and had more info on projects that are already going on that actually support his general theory.

In my opinion, making self-conscious, properly weighed decisions is important, but an editor’s passion about a project is equally important. I don’t think he intends it this way, but Venuti makes the acquisition project seem like a dry, boring process, when really, reading and falling in love with a particular book, culture, etc., is exciting and fun, and there’s something to be said for going ahead with a project that an editor is passionate about.

More importantly, there are a lot of publishers, cultural organizations, and translators currently doing things that relate to Venuti’s general premise—activities that deserve to be highlighted. In addition to editorial trips, there are programs like Reading the World, the intent of which is to offer a broader context for literature in translation, and there are a number of top-notch translation preses (like NYRB and New Directions and Archipelago and the like) who do collaborate instead of compete, and work together in trying to promote different literary cultures.

Both of these essays by Venuti are very thought provoking and help advance certain questions and ideas that the publishing industry (at least those devote to international literature) should be considering, debating, and discussing. These pieces are just the beginning though . . . in addition to looking at the responsibility of publishers in their editorial choices, there are issues related to marketing and promotions, how the bookstore marketplace works, etc., all of which feed into creating the appropriate context for reading, appreciating, and coming to understand works in translation.

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