In Other Words: a discussion about translation and translators at Asian Review

Julia Lovell, Sophie Lewis, Arunava Sinha, Marcia Lynx Qualey and I took part in a discussion at Asian Review of Books on the nature of translation and the role of translators in bringing Asian literature to the English-speaking world. Here is an excerpt from the conversation:

Peter Gordon, editor: A work in translation is, obviously, not the same as a work in the original language. But what is it exactly that readers are actually reading when they read a translation?

Lucas Klein: First, what a translation is not: a genetic clone of some original. Many criticisms of translation—such as that translation is “impossible”—are based on impossibly narrow definitions of translation.

Peter Gordon, editor: When setting up the Man Asian Literary Prize, I included an additional award for the translator (if there was one) of the winning novel. This was not just a matter of acknowledging the translators’ contribution: the Prize was initially for as yet unpublished works, and I figured if anyone would know what interesting works were in the pipeline, it would be translators … Where do translators and translations fit in this “eco-system”?

Lucas Klein: The role of translators in that ecosystem can seem both very large and very small. If Faulkner was influenced by the Bible and the great nineteenth century Russian novelists, say, and in turn influenced Gabriel García Márquez and Mo Yan, then not only was Faulkner influenced by the King James translators, but also by Constance Garnett, who translated Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the early twentieth century, as García Márquez and Mo Yan are influenced by the translators of Faulkner into Spanish and Chinese, while Howard Goldblatt is in turn influenced not only by Faulkner but by Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman—García Márquez’s main translators into English—in the formation of the literary style he has used to represent and recreate Mo Yan’s voice in English.

Click the image above for the full discussion.

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.