13 March 08 | Chad W. Post

Not sure how we missed this article by Jane Henderson in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about how “world literature thrives in translation” (especially considering that Three Percent is listed in the “more information” box), but I have to agree with Michael Orthofer —“thriving” is probably a bad word choice, especially when this is the evidence cited:

“I think it’s picking up,” said Douglas Kibbee, director of the School of Literatures, Cultures, and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has a new Center for Translation Studies. “If you look at what’s reviewed in The New York Times Book Review, more translations are showing up. Now it’s rare to go a single issue without having a translated work in it.”

Even if the NY Times is covering a translation a week in the Sunday Book Review, that’s only 50 books a year . . . throw in a few extras for good measure, and at best they’re reviewing 70 title (this figure is probably way overstated). Which is fine—it could be a lot lower, and besides it’s their prerogative to review whatever they want—but I’d hardly reference that as proof that translation is thriving . . .

This is one of the problems with the U.S. publishing world—with a lack of statistical data about such issues, anyone can pass off “gut feelings” as fact. (Hell, I’ve done it myself—oftentimes that’s all you have to go on.) And like Orthofer said, the bar is so low that any slight increase is cause for celebration.

There really may be reason for optimism though . . . Translation isn’t really “thriving” per se, but over the past few years a number of things have developed—from PEN World Voices to Words Without Borders to a few new translation centers at various universities to the biennial Translation Conference going on later this month—that have helped to bring more attention and awareness to the issues and pleasures of world literature.

Nevertheless, when there are only approx. 400 original translations of adult fiction and poetry are published here on an annual basis, the majority of which get little to no review coverage, I think we have a long way to go . . . At least more people are talking about translations and looking for ways to improve the situation.


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