On the May/June issue of Foreign Policy, Edith Grossman writes that major publishers in the English-speaking world are “inexplicably resistant” to translated material, despite the commercial success that many translated writers have experienced.
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.”
It is true that the cultural influence of American literature in the last century looks like a sort of “monologue”, a one-way street that, despite being often seen as culturally imperialistic , it’s not necessarily beneficial to the English-speaking world, besides the relatively small sums earned with the sale of foreign rights. It’s not beneficial because, as the rest of the world balances translated and homegrown literature, thus broadening its cultural horizon – anyone can understand why and how Texas and New York are two worlds apart, or how the average British is different to the average American – the English-speaking world often finds itself at a loss when it comes to understanding other cultures, and especially the nuances within them.
The problem, obviously, is the general approach of a culture as whole, and this particular problem has had its share of catastrophic results – think of the culturally insensitive approach of the Bush administration on the international stage, to quote an obvious example. The most extreme consequences are summed up by Emily Apter in an essay published in The Translation Zone, where she notes how the U.S. military, at the eve of the invasion of Iraq, were
“counting on computerized language translators to help with everything from interrogating prisoners to locating chemical weapons caches.”
“The stakes of mistranslation are deadly, for in the theater of war a machinic error can easily cause death by “friendly fire” or misguided enemy targets.”
“In terms of linguistic and cultural capacity the US today commands what may be the lowest-quality clandestine service of any great power in history.”
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.
It’s hard to comment on or add anything to such a lucid analysis, so I’ll just suggest that you read the whole article here.
Photo: Rob Purdie