A New Great Wall: Why the Crisis in Translation Matters

Article excerpt

ONE OF THE TRULY GREAT WAR correspondents, a monumental figure who reported from Afghanistan for 20 years and won almost every literary prize offered in Italy; a humanistic French-Tunisian scholar who has sought a middle way between Islam and secularism; an Eritrean writer whose epic saga of his country's troubled history subverts both official versions, the Ethiopian and the American. They are some of the most important voices in the world today, honored intellectuals in their own countries. You're not likely to have heard of Ettore Mo, Abdelwahab Meddeb, or Alemseged Tesfai, however, because they are rarely translated into English. In the English-speaking world, in fact, major publishing houses are inexplicably resistant to any kind of translated material at all.

The statistics are shocking in this age of so-called globalization: In the United States and Britain, only 2 to 3 percent of books published each year are translations, compared with almost 35 percent in Latin America and Western Europe. Horace Engdahl, then the secretary of the Swedish Academy, chided the United States in 2008 for its literary parochialism: "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature."

But this is no mere national embarrassment: The dearth of translated literature in the English-speaking world represents a new kind of iron curtain we have constructed around ourselves. We are choosing to block off access to the writing of a large and significant portion of the world, including movements and societies whose potentially dreadful political impact on us is made even more menacing by our general lack of familiarity with them. Our stubborn and willful ignorance could have--and arguably, already has had--dangerous consequences. The problem starts in the Anglophone publishing industry, where translated books are not only avoided but actively discouraged. They can be commercially successful (think of the cachet enjoyed in the United States by The Name of the Rose, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or anything by Roberto Bolano), and still most U.S. and British publishers resist the very idea of translation. Some years ago, a senior editor at a prestigious house told me that he could not even consider taking on another translation because he already had two on his list.

Publishers have their excuses, of course. A persistent but not very convincing explanation is that English-language readers are, for some reason, put off by translations. This is nothing but a publishing shibboleth that leads to a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Is a limited readership for translations the reason so few are published in the Anglophone world? Or is that readership limited because English-language publishers provide their readers with so few translations? Certainly, the number of readers of literature--in any language-is on the decline, and serious, dedicated editors face real difficulties bringing good books to the marketplace. But that is not the fault of translation. And ignoring literature in translation in no way helps solve the problem. …