When translation declines, literatures stagnate
Over dinner, I asked the Québécoise writer Sylvie Desrosiers, the author of successful novels for both adults and younger readers, whether her books had been translated into English. “Non, pas en anglais,” she said. “I’ve been translated into Spanish, Greek, Arabic . . .” She listed two or three other languages, then shook her head. “But not into English.”
A few weeks after Desrosiers’s visit, I was one of the hosts for the Ontario tour of the Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya. The Salvadoran edition of Moya’s novel El Asco (1997)—the title is roughly translatable as Revulsion —ran through six printings in a year and earned Moya enough death threats that he moved to Germany. Now in his late forties, Moya is the best-known Salvadoran writer of his generation. His novels come out in Spanish-language editions in San Salvador, Mexico City and Barcelona; in France and Quebec he is considered a significant literary figure (he was a featured guest of the 2005 Salon du Livre in Montreal); his novels are also available in German and Italian. His work has not been translated into English.
The Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa has declared that anyone who doesn’t know English today is condemned to provincialism. This may be true, but it is equally true that anyone who knows only English is also condemned to provincialism because in the last fifteen years the English-speaking world has turned its back on other literatures. Translation is an imperfect filter for literature; often it is a downright distortion. But when translation declines, literatures stagnate. Constance Garnett’s translations, although they are now recognized as clumsy and deficient, brought Russian literature into the literate English-speaking consciousness in the early twentieth century. Modernist prose benefited from this awareness. “I want to discuss Form, having been reading Turgenev,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on August 16, 1933. Across the English Channel, Woolf’s near-contemporary André Gide devoted a book to arguing that Dostoevsky was a greater writer than Tolstoy. It is possible that early French translations of Russian literature were no more precise or elegant than those of Garnett, but their publication reshaped literary debate.
The focus of literary translation changes with the political climate. Translations of Russian literature made the leap across the Atlantic in the early 1940s as part of a U.S. government “amity program” that subsidized cultural exchange with Washington’s Second World War ally, the Soviet Union. After 1945, the new ally was Japan: Washington funded the study of Japanese language and literature in U.S. universities. This stimulated the availability of translations of novels by Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki. These translations established a taste for Japanese fiction among readers of English, paving the way for the success in English translation of later writers such as Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. Political alliances determined that we gained access to a broad spectrum of Japanese fiction but learned little of Chinese literature.
During the Cold War, series such as Writers from the Other Europe, edited for Penguin Books by Philip Roth, made us less provincial by ensuring that we could find works by George Konrád, Bruno Schulz and Tadeusz Konwicki in our bookstores. The political imperative ensured that every word by the Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn appeared in English, and assisted the careers of Milan Kundera and Ivan Klíma. Conversely, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s policy of cultivating good relations with the West must take some of the blame for the fact that the great Romanian novelist Marin Preda was excluded from this wave of translation. The campus counterpoint to the promotion of dissident work from Eastern Europe took the form of acclaim for translations of Spanish American fiction. Personally, I hold those shiny little Avon paperbacks with the lush paintings on the covers responsible for driving me to master Spanish. The most popular edition of the emblematic Spanish American novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, appeared in the Avon series, as did other pivotal works, such as Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch and Vargas Llosa’s The Green House. Avon branched out into classics by older writers, such as the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, and began the task of remedying our ignorance of the riches of Brazilian literature.
The end of the Cold War wound down this boom period for translation. The widespread misconception that globalization means that the whole world speaks English has rendered translated fiction suspect. Where Avon used to flaunt the translating prowess of Gregory Rabassa or Thomas Colchie, publishers now try to keep the translator’s name off the cover out of a belief that contemporary readers are reluctant to buy books that were not written in English. (Of the 100 best-selling paperbacks in the United Kingdom in 2004, only two were translations.) Every day we hear of the importance of China, yet we still know little about its literature. Brazil, India and most contemporary Arabic writing remain enigmas. Now that central and eastern Europe no longer supply politically useful dissidents, we have ceased to translate the region’s literature. No longer do English-Canadian undergraduates regard translations of Marie- Claire Blais novels as vital reading, as many did in the 1970s, nor do young English-speaking readers elsewhere receive substantial exposure to current French-language fiction from Europe, Africa or the Caribbean.
Even Spanish American writers, whose culture increasingly overlaps with that of theUnited States, struggle to find an outlet in English. In 2004 I watched the Miami-based Peruvian novelist and star talk-show host Jaime Bayly struggle with his frustrations during an onstage interview when a reader asked where she could find translations of his best-selling novels for her English-speaking friends. “I do not know why I am not translated into English,” Bayly said.
Among them, the last five novels of the Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez have won three major prizes in Europe, and have appeared on the bestseller lists of half a dozen countries, yet only one of these novels is forthcoming in English translation, from tiny Curbstone Press in Connecticut. The work of Roberto BolaZo, the central figure of post-1990 Latin American postmodernism, is just starting to filter into English. The era of Avon paperbacks is long gone. To walk into a good bookstore in France or Italy is to be arrested by unfamiliar names as one surveys local translations of writers from many countries whose work does not appear in English. And it is not only the Europeans who are ahead of us. The novels of Paulina Chiziane, a Portuguese speaking Mozambican who is considered one of the most important woman writers in Africa, are not translated into English but may be enjoyed by readers in Bangkok through their translation into Thai.
At a time when everyone is asking why English-language fiction has stalled, why fewer readers buy novels, part of the answer must lie in the decline of translation. Alert readers of Spanish, French, German, Italian and Portuguese, among other languages, participate in an international aesthetic conversation; readers and writers of English, condemned to silence by insular fantasies of global artistic relevance, are missing out on the next wave of literature.