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.
Many of Virginie Despentes’s books revolve around the same central idea: “To be born a woman [is] the worst fate in practically every society.” But this message is nearly always packaged in easy-to-read books that fill you with the pleasure. . .
Ilja Leonard Pfeijffer’s La Superba is appropriately titled after the Italian city of Genoa, where, after escaping the pressures of fame in his own country, the semi-autobiographical narrator finds himself cataloguing the experiences of its mesmerizing inhabitants with the intention. . .
It took reading 44 pages of Intervenir/Intervene before I began to get a sense of what Dolores Dorantes and Rodrigo Flores Sánchez were up to. Recurring throughout these 44 pages—throughout the entire book—are shovels, shovel smacks to the face, lobelias—aha!. . .
As presaged by its title, contradiction is the theme of Peter Stamm’s novel, All Days Are Night. Gillian, a well-known television personality, remains unknowable to herself. And Hubert, a frustrated artist and Gillian’s lover, creates art through the process of. . .
It’s a rare and wonderful book that begins and ends with violence and humor. At the start of Etgar Keret’s The Seven Good Years, Keret is in a hospital waiting for the birth of his first child while nurses, in. . .
Last year, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian was an unexpected critical hit. Now, it’s just been published in the U.S. and has already received a great deal of positive critical attention. The Vegetarian was a bold book to attempt as an. . .
It’s been almost a year since the publication of Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah, but despite being included on the 2015 PEN Translation award longlist, and some pretty vocal support from key indie presses, the book has. . .
Jorge Eduardo Benavides’ novel La paz de los vencidos (The Peace of the Defeated) takes the form of a diary written by a nameless Peruvian thirty-something intellectual slumming it in Santa Cruz de Tenerife in Spain’s Canary Islands. Recently relocated. . .
Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of. . .
Randall Jarrell once argued a point that I will now paraphrase and, in doing so, over-simplify: As a culture, we need book criticism, not book reviews. I sort of agree, but let’s not get into all of that. Having finished. . .