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.

2 thoughts on “On the Tyranny of Big Languages

  1. I wonder how relevant the 3% statistic is. I don’t dispute that a (depressingly) low number of books published in the US are translations. But there are two trends that would suggest that US residents are gaining access to the work of more foreign writers than that statistic suggests:

    1) Books translated into English and published anywhere in the world, be it Japan, India or Germany, can often be purchased online in the US, but in theory at least, they would not be counted in the ubiquitous 3% claim;

    2) Native speakers of languages such as Chinese are increasingly writing good-selling fiction in English. They include Ha Jin, Guo Xiaolu, Qiu Xiaolong, and Yiyun Li.

    • Good points, Bruce, but I’m not convinced that either of these is as great as you suggest them as being. For point 1, while some US-based book-buyers can access English books published in other countries, only an extreme minority is actually going to do so; given lack of advertizing and cost of shipping, these books will have a hard time getting broad readership in the English-speaking world. As for 2, these are also important, but because they’re written in English for an English-language audience, what they have to say and how they have to say it are going to be different than what might otherwise appear in translation. In short, I think these are both positive developments, but as I see it they can’t supplant the benefits of a wider-scale publication of literary translation.

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