Translation, Please: Why We Need It Now More Than Ever

Aviya Kushner
From the November/December 2002 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In the numb and eerie weeks that followed September 11, 2001, many Americans hesitantly wondered about the inner lives of people in countries far from the somber recovery efforts in downtown Manhattan. What do the citizens of other nations believe in, dream of, and fear? What do they hope for, and what do they mourn? What is their version of history?

Literary translators have always been intensely interested in these questions. The task of bringing literature into another language means transporting an entire culture, its shame as well as its triumphs. Through that process, important political and social ideas travel, too. Historically, translation has served as a messenger of both bad and good news. Poets Paul Celan and Miklós Radnóti left the world harrowing, eyewitness accounts of the Holocaust. The more languages these works are translated into, the better the chance this inhumanity will not be repeated. During the dark years when Europe was overtaken by Fascism, the Italian writer Cesar Pavese's translations of American literature offered Italians a view of another, more open culture—a taste of democracy—and a reason to work toward change.

Today, whether that pertinent information reaches the wider world largely depends on if an author is translated into English, typically the most effective springboard to international media outlets. Unfortunately, in the U.S. at least, not nearly enough translation makes it into print. "Now is the time for us to start thinking of translation of literature as a national crisis," says Cliff Becker, literature director for the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA has been researching the number of translated books available to readers, and Becker has been dismayed by the results: Translations represent less than two percent of all literary publishing. It is time to rectify the situation by promoting more literary translation, Becker says, especially because these days many Americans are trying to understand a complex and rapidly changing world.

Under Becker's direction, the NEA has nearly doubled its number of translation grants—from 22 last round to 40 in this fall's round—and it hopes to do more. "The NEA in the last two years has given the same amount of money in fellowships to translators as it did before its budget was cut by forty percent," Becker notes.

Many in the translation community readily agree with Becker's "crisis" description. "Like so much in American culture, we live in a tremendous isolationist bubble," says Jim Kates, codirector of Zephyr Press in Brookline, Massachusetts. Zephyr publishes several books in translation each year, including the British series Modern Poetry in Translation. "I think of what we'd do if we had only ten percent of our vision—we'd run and get to an eye doctor; we'd want to see more of the world. Literary translation adds to our vision. It's corrective lenses."

All this comes at a time when, according to translators, editors, and publishers, the quality of translations by American writers is quite high. "Translators overall are much better in every way than they were twenty years ago," says Marian Schwartz, president of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). "Not only are there at least a couple of dozen first-rank translators at work, but there are early- and midcareer translators doing very good work. We're also translating a much wider variety of literatures, from countries that never used to be represented. Last but not least, we've developed a sense of ourselves as a legitimate artistic profession, a self-awareness, if you will."

But the gap between talent and opportunity troubles Schwartz. "As translators have been growing and expanding, the publishing of translations has been contracting," Schwartz says. "Every year there are fewer translations being published on a commercial basis." This has sent many top translators to small presses, which are publishing more world literature. Small presses also have a reputation for offering more translator-friendly contracts. Large commercial publishers rarely extend a share of subsidiary rights or royalties to translators, so that in the case of a blockbuster like Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, all translator Gregory Rabassa got was a work-for-hire flat fee.

As the big publishers have continued to release fewer works in translation, American translation organizations have been making a noticeable effort to increase demand, in part by bringing the pleasures of foreign language and literature to a larger community. San Francisco's Center for Art in Translation, founded in 1998 by a few Stanford graduate students, sends translator-poets into elementary schools to introduce children to the benefits of bilingualism. The center's handsome annual journal, Two Lines, only publishes translations. Its young staff believes that openness to other cultures is essential to America's evolution and continued advancement, that nurturing bilingualism is one way to ensure that America will continue to be open to new ideas. Their program introduces children early on to the pleasures of translation.

"These are third-graders who have favorite Neruda poems," says CAT director Olivia Sears [see page 58], who holds a doctorate in Italian literature. "They come to love poetry, and their [own translation] work is so good that professional translators I've shown it to have been embarrassed."

Meanwhile, established cultural organizations are getting into the act. In January 2002 the Lannan Foundation announced a substantial commitment to literary translation through the establishment of a $450,000 fund for translations into English by literary presses. Lannan also now offers translators residencies at the foundation's Texas headquarters. "This is our first year of giving support in literary translation," says Yun Kim, Lannan's literary manager. "Our primary goal is to increase the number of translations in the U.S. and to bring attention to the art of translation. We decided the best way to do that was to go through publishers."

The NEA and PEN have both intensified their efforts to support translation. In addition to increasing grant funding for translation, the NEA is looking for ways to put more world literature into the hands of American readers. This will in turn increase demand, providing a growing readership that, Becker says, "will not just change a few organizations but will change the way publishers look at international literature." PEN has a new Internet directory of translators, and it continues to publish a guide for literary translators and to award several significant prizes. The new Center for Translation at UC–Irvine is supported by major backers, including the International Institute for Modern Letters at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas. The IIML has also partnered with three other universities to pool funds for translation projects, making it one of the nation's largest financial supporters of translation.

For beginning and experienced translators alike, the place to be is ALTA's annual conference, which is known for its welcoming tone. ALTA maintains a Web site with a wealth of information on translation, and in general helps its 800-member network. A few universities, like Boston University, the University of Texas at Dallas, and the University of Iowa, host active translation programs that introduce students to the art and practice of literary translation.

But there's a wide gulf between creative writing and translation at most institutions. To get tenure, most creative writing and English tenure-track candidates need to show a book of "original poetry" or "original scholarship." Translations don't count. This discourages interest in translating—and, by extension, interest in world literature, many translators believe. They complain of a narrow, networking mind-set that ultimately hurts writers who should be trying to become better poets, fiction writers, and researchers. "One of the problems translations have in the writing community is that I've found a lot of writers who will [only] read writers who [they think] will do them some good," Kates says. "They want to read people who can help them—who can bring them to conferences. A Romanian writer can't do that."

Translators have warm words for literary magazines like AGNI, Seneca Review, and Partisan Review that have made an increasing effort to spotlight international writers. Still, despite the efforts of these and other publications and work by a growing number of individuals and organizations, the art of literary translation in America remains mostly in the shadows. Poets & Writers talked with translators about their work, and the way their lives have changed because of their involvement in translation.

Aviya Kushner is a poet and journalist. Her work has appeared in Harvard Review, Partisan Review, and the International Jerusalem Post among other publications.