Sunday, August 16, 2020

WITMonth Day 16 | Languages and power | Thoughts

One of the frequent critiques WITMonth faces is in its centering of Anglo-American/English-language cultural expectations. Why, some international readers argue, do I center Anglo culture in demanding that translations not include books originally written in English? I've addressed these points in the past (and will address them more fully in the near future), but today I want to focus on something that spins off from this question: How do we address the power imbalances between different languages? How do we address the power imbalances in translation that follow the status of different languages? And what does it ultimately mean for readers?

Languages reflect culture in more ways than one. As a native bilingual myself who grew up in a multilingual household (among my grandparents and parents, there are six native languages alone; including the different languages learned by family members or spoken by friends or my surroundings, the number crosses 10), I have long been aware of the ways that different languages reflect the cultures of those speaking those languages, not to mention the ways in which multilingualism itself shapes subcultures. I have subsequently had the great pleasure of being exposed to many different languages throughout my lifetime, though I unfortunately have not had the opportunity to really learn most. 

When we talk about literature in translation - or literature more broadly - not all languages are created equal, nor is their origin. French - a language with ~80 million native speakers - is the language with the most translations into English, yet these are overwhelmingly from France itself (despite ~274 million fluent French speakers estimated worldwide). Meanwhile, Hindi - a language with ~322 million native speakers - barely rates in terms of translations into English that are publicized in the English-only speaking world (i.e. the US, UK, etc.). These sorts of power imbalances are evident in translation to other languages as well, where English-language literature is often a dominating force.

What often ends up happening is that languages with less power - typically those spoken by fewer people, or with a "lesser" cultural impact (in English, at least) - don't get translated. Or, rather, they often don't get written in the first place. In countless regions across the world, colonial languages (and not just European, though obviously these dominate in some regions more than others) are favored over native/local languages because they are likely to garner greater readership and indeed exposure. So you're likely to have read several Nigerian writers in English, but have probably never read a work translated from Yoruba (~40 million native speakers). In this same way, most English-language readers have read works by Indian writers, yet no works translated from Indian languages. As always, the problem is only exacerbated for women writers, who face even greater hurdles in getting published, publicized, and translated than men. 

And it's not just English, of course. French, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, and Portuguese have lessened the power of countless local languages in different places around the world in some degree or other, not necessarily in the same ways. The process also predates the modern era, with languages frequently dying out over time (though nothing is quite on the scale of our current linguistic mass extinction). When we (I) talk about reading more works by African women writers in translation, that mostly means reading works written in French. For the Caribbean or Latin America, it often means works written in French, Spanish, or Portuguese (occasionally also Dutch). Sometimes, this is the result of generations of colonial rule (Latin America); sometimes, it's the effect of relatively modern, swift homogenization efforts (China). 

Writers are, of course, at perfect liberty to choose the language in which they want to write. I will not look down on any author who chooses to write in a more popular language because it means their work is more likely to be read widely. I will, however, note that gendered power imbalances often mean that women are the ones who choose to write in languages other than their own. To take the example of Yoruba that I mentioned earlier, literally every single author listed on Wikipedia as "Yoruba-language writers" is a man. It's a pattern I've found across many different languages and cultures. It doesn't mean that there aren't women writing in different native languages (again: see this year's 50 Day Countdown), but fewer than I would expect or hope for.

As readers - particularly as readers who obviously do not have access to every single language on Earth - we have limited control over the books that we can read, by virtue of availability. As I've said before many times in reference to the lack of women writers in translation (in English and elsewhere): Readers cannot be expected to love books that they haven't read, and they cannot be expected to read books that they cannot access. As a reader who does have the option of reading in English, for example, I'm exposed to a lot more literature than I would be if I only read books translated into Hebrew. English - even as a secondary language, even as an overly dominant colonial language - has immense power. 

But if we're going to talk about the lack of women in translation, we have to understand the sources of the problem, and this is absolutely one of them. We also have to be able to address the ways in which different languages are treated in translation, acknowledging the at-times racist power structures that elevate certain languages far above others (e.g. Norwegian is more translated into English than Marathi) and how these affect women writers in particular. 

We have to be able to talk about what it means to read works that were written in an author's second language, whether it's English or not, to address the way this often shapes an author's popularity or cultural impact. And this is especially important because the language that we write in shapes the work itself. A story that is written from within a certain culture or community and is assumed to be for that culture or community is not going to be the same as a story that is written for an external audience. Moreover, writing changes across different languages and comfort levels per language. I'm a native bilingual and my writing does not sound the same in English and Hebrew, by virtue of the books I've read and the respective literary styles that guide each language. And I'm not even a writer!

Ultimately, we need to remember this one point: Languages have power and unfortunately that power has enormous influence on the books that we read. Whether viewing this matter through an English-language lens (this is a blog in English, after all...) or through the lens of any other native language, we need to be able to pause and ask ourselves why we're exposed to certain books and not others, why we're familiar with certain languages and not others, and why we ultimately have a literary landscape that favors some types of writers over others. And we need to do this both in the context of recognizing where women in translation reside as a group, as well as the imbalances among women writers in translation.

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