On translation, by a master translator

Edith Grossman, the translator of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other Latino writers, has an excellent essay, on, what else, translation.

I like what she said, that (emphasis mine, bold):

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. On the contrary, we need to ask what we forfeit as readers and as a society if we lose access to translated literature by voluntarily reducing its presence in our community or quietly standing by as it is drastically and arbitrarily curtailed.

The crisis in translation does not hurt only English-speaking readers — it affects everyone who cares about knowledge worldwide. For one, the English-language market is immense and generally located in areas where the population tends to be literate and prosperous enough to purchase books. Then, too, a truism has it that a body of work must be translated into English before a writer can even be considered for the Nobel Prize in literature because it is claimed, perhaps with reason, that ours is the only language all the judges read. Even more significant may be the fact that English often serves as the linguistic bridge for the translation of a book into a number of Asian and African languages. For a book written in Spanish to enter the enormous potential market of China, for example, it must often be translated into English first. By limiting English translation, we’re turning off a spigot that flows not just to us but to the rest of the world as well.

Most important, we confront a hovering and constant threat to civil liberties as we reduce the number of translations we publish. The free exchange of literary ideas, insights, and intuitions — a basic reciprocity of thought facilitated by the translation of works from other cultures — is central to a free society. Dictators know this: They place tremendous importance on language, how it is used, to what end, and by whom. Imprisoned writers, banned books, censored media, restrictions on translations, even repeated attempts to abolish what are called “minority” languages are all clear indications that tyrannies take language, books, and access to information and ideas very seriously. Democracies have an obligation to take these matters even more seriously — and at the moment, the English-speaking world is failing in that task.

It may well be that in the best of all possible worlds — the one that predates the construction of the Tower of Babel — all humans were able to communicate with all other humans and the function of translators was quite literally unthinkable. But here we are in a world whose shrinking store of languages comes to roughly 6,000, a world where isolationism and rampaging nationalism are on the rise and countries are beginning to erect actual as well as metaphorical walls around themselves. I do not believe I am overstating the case when I say that translation can be, for readers as well as writers, one of the ways past a menacing babble of incomprehensible tongues and closed frontiers into mutual comprehension. It is not a possibility we can safely turn our backs on.

The tyranny of the so-called “national language” anyone?

That’s like Tagalog, eh?  And some hardcore and desperate Tagalogistas who look down upon minor “regional” or “vernacular” languages?

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