On the Tyranny of Big Languages

Publishing Perspectives has published a perspective on a panel in which three European writers–Bulgaria’s Kalin Terziiski, Romania’s Răzvan Rădulescu, and the Czech Republic’s Tomáš Zmeškal–discussed the state of literature and literary publishing around the world. The whole piece is worth a read, but to me, the most interesting question is whether, for writers in lesser-spoken languages, translators are more important than literary agents. The point is put this way:

Zmeškal went on to say that unless a writer is translated into one of the big languages – English, French, German, Spanish – then it becomes very hard to get translated into the smaller languages because those publishers are waiting for the kind of validation that comes with being published in a big market.

It’s not hard to see why. Since so-called “smaller languages” are actually languages of fewer speakers, there’s both a higher pressure on speakers of those languages to master the “big languages,” especially English, as well as a lower likelihood that enough speakers of those languages will master other languages–such as Chinese, say–at the level required to produce good translations. This has resulted in some interesting outcomes: in Romanian, one translator has been responsible for both contemporary fiction and medieval literary theory; the first translation of Cien años de soledad into Chinese was done from Russian and English, not Spanish; and then of course there’s Croatian poet Miroslav Kirin‘s translations of my translations of Xi Chuan… But fundamentally this is a big problem: we know that translations only account for a measly 3% of books published in the US each year–and according to Chad Post, “in terms of literary fiction and poetry, the number is actually closer to 0.7%.” This means that not only are Americans exposed to appallingly little from the rest of the world, but American ignorance ends up enforcing itself upon the rest of the world’s literary cultures, as well. Of course, this is a phenomenon not limited to the world of literary publishing.

If literature from smaller languages needs the help of translation into English before it can be translated into other smaller languages, then I’m afraid that literature from smaller languages isn’t getting much help.