Saturday, March 14, 2009

Translation roundup

Many of the books I read are translations from other languages. I think almost everybody reads a lot of translations, after all. Some of the "great classics" come from other languages. I, meanwhile, have simply spent the last few years trying to read as much literature from different corners of the earth, regardless of the language or translation. Still, as I contemplated reading the next Zola Les Rougon-Macquart novel, I thought of how modern and casual the previous ones (translated by different people, but the same publishers) had felt. This stayed on my mind as I read Literary License's post about the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. I then also encountered the equally interesting Three Percent award for best translated book. All this coupled with the most interesting article from Three Percent (again) about an interesting Diversity Report was enough to raise a few questions regarding translations.

I always hear people talking about the new translations of "War and Peace" but I read the oldest one and it went fine. Dennis Drabelle at Short Stack complains about precisely this, arguing that there are too many other, good books that go ignored. Among them, the recent talk of the town, is "Every Man Dies Alone", (published in Britain as "Alone in Berlin"), which though published in German in 1947, was only just translated and published in English. It's a situation that has baffled many readers and many complained - loudly - about having been denied this book for so long.

And yet we've somehow entered the murkier waters which Three Percent led us to. Books are mainly translated from English. Yes, obviously a number of other language books get their moment in the sun every once in a while ("The Shadow of the Wind" was remarkably popular last year for a Spanish novel) but for the most part it's English speakers who get the fame and glory from writing. Awards that showcase translated books don't plead a better case. After all, if the book wasn't translated into English, the book wouldn't qualify. Thousands of gems must be passed over every year simply because the authors weren't born lucky enough to be native English speakers. Meanwhile, just about every remotely popular English (language) novel gets translated into dozens of languages. It's not nice to think of.

No, I cannot help the fact that I'm an English speaker. I can boast that I speak other languages as well (and do occasionally read in them), but I cannot deny that I read my Tolstoy in English. There will always be excellent books that will fall through the cracks. It's a sad fact. But it's sadder still to know that the reason for this originates from a slightly Anglocentric (again, in terms of the language) view of modern literature. I await my copy of "Every Man Dies Alone" knowing that it's spent fifty years with a wide German speaking audience, but little global recognition. Three Percent's description of translations "like a wealth pyramid" don't help the gloom either. All and all, these make for interesting articles and thoughts. Together, they paint a bleak picture of today's literary world.


  1. I agree the picture is from a certain perspective bleak, but if you think about how we have advanced through the ages in making literature more and more available to people throughout the world, it appears as though we are actually improving. One of my favorite authors is Chingis Aitmatov, and I'm pretty sure that having his books translated into Hebrew was as much a surprise to him as it was to me (:

  2. While I embrace novels and short stories translated into English, I remain wary of poetry in translation. Too much in poetry depends upon specificity of diction, and translation muddies that specificity.

  3. First, Chingiz Aitmatov! No kidding! Please, see here.

    Second, if you skip translations of Homer, Ovid, Dante, Villon, St. John of the Cross, Heine, Hugo, etc., and so on, just because their specificity has been muddied, you're making a terrible mistake.

  4. I read dozens of fiction translated into English, mostly Russian and Eastern European. I have recently noticed that no sooner have the books are released than publishers negotiate deals with translators. Huge amount of fiction in the English language are available in Chinese before their trade paperbacks are out. On a few occasions I read the translation in Chinese because I couldn't hold back my curiosity.


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