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Have the Anglos Lost Too Much in Translation?

foreign langauge book

Editorial by Kelvin Smith

A spirited defense of reading “foreign” books

When was the last time you read a book written in a foreign language? If you are a fan of crime fiction, probably it wasn’t so long ago. Or you might be one of the millions of readers of Paolo Coelho or Haruki Murakami. On the face of it we are becoming more open to the literature of the world, and translation flows in Europe are more varied and less Anglo-centric than is often supposed.

But no, what I mean is, when was the last time you read a book written in a foreign language in the original language? If you live in Denmark or the Netherlands, you probably do this most of the time, and if you are a student in parts of Europe or Asia, much of your reading will be in English. In Africa and many other parts of the world, the language you read in is probably not the language you speak at home. But if you are American, English or Australian you may never have even opened a book in anything other than English, and very few bookshops in the Anglophone world carry anything other than a smattering of texts. Charity shops have a much better selection!

Book covers, bookseller listings and book reviews often don’t even tell us that a book is translated (or if it does it is very understated), and it can look as if we are being encouraged not to recognize the skill or even the presence of the translator. If we are not going to build even higher walls around the Anglophone ghetto, we must all make it known that we find the non-English exciting and valuable, not some dirty secret of publishing, representing little more than the unpleasant additional cost of translation.

Perhaps publishers need to think more about what they are doing to our language, too. They have a direct influence on what is written as well as how it is translated, as Julian Barnes has pointed out.

“I remember hearing a well-known British novelist admit in a radio interview that he had paused at one point in his writing, thought of the pain he might be inflicting on his Scandinavian translators, and decided to make things easier for them. Apart from this being a denial of your own language, it can easily lead to the sort of international prose that is like an airline meal: it feeds all, doesn’t actually poison anyone, but isn’t noticeably nutritious.” (Julian Barnes, London Review of Books, Vol. 32 No. 22. 18 November 2010, pages 7-11.)

Just as many of us are now more aware of the food we eat, perhaps it’s time to think about how our translation diet is storing up problems for our future mental and cultural well-being. If we satisfy our hunger for the foreign with books often written specifically with an eye on the translation market, aren’t we risking something like a bulimia of the soul? Do the translations we read persuade us to go that extra step and read a book in the original? Does anyone learn a Scandinavian language in order to read a Nordic thriller in the original? Should anyone bother? Perhaps not, but Le Clézio, Borges, Saramago or Christa Wolf? Surely these are worth the effort. Isn’t it time for us to reassert our belief in the value of reading in other languages, and to make sure that publishers, reviewers and booksellers do their bit?

And let’s not be dazzled by what the big guys say they are doing about translation. Amazon’s launch of Amazon Crossing, Google Translate and Ads in over forty languages, a proliferation of iPhone translation apps . . . these encourage us to think that there will soon be a time when we will all speak our own language, but have seamless access to all others through the glories of technology. Of course this is good for business, if you see intellectual content as fodder for an advertising channel, a constantly updated range of devices or a physical and digital distribution system with global ambitions. But remember that Silvio Berlusconi once said that “football is just software for television,” and look what’s happened to football!

The translator has been described as a passeur, a ferryman who carries meaning from one side to another. But a passeur is not just a ferryman: he is also a smuggler. When we rely only on translation to show us how others live, we may be getting contraband, in a plain wrapper, no questions asked, and any publisher knows that contraband can be a major threat to our culture. On the other hand, a smuggled text may represent a rare and valuable communication from an otherwise closed part of the world, a text being ferried from one side of a dividing gulf to the other, on an arduous journey to a new life in a new country. If translations like these can fire our enthusiasm for the riches available in other languages, all of us at London Book Fair may begin new journeys of discovery.

Sooner or later, the people of the Anglo world will wake up to realize they have been sold a pup. The world, and our precious “world” language, has changed around us, and, quite frankly, we look stupid if we only speak English. The future of publishing will not be an English-language affair and we should welcome this. If we open up to the possibilities of the multilingual digital culture, it could rescue both our language and our dignity.

Kelvin Smith writes on publishing, gives advice when asked, and runs the website www.europublishing.info.

DISCUSS: Has a Translation Prompted You to Seek Out The Book in the Original Language?

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  1. Posted April 15, 2011 at 8:57 am | Permalink

    Great article. I’m a non English writer, from my perspective things are different, but I have to agree with the conclusions: “The future of publishing will not be an English-language affair and we should welcome this. If we open up to the possibilities of the multilingual digital culture, it could rescue both our language and our dignity.”

    The thing is that the rest of the world is learning English, learning hard. It will never be as perfect as yours, but we are able to communicate BOTH WAYS. Speaking one language is a handicap, everyone will tell you that in Poland or India or Brazil.

    Social media are allowing people to exchange thoughts and opinions and there are tools like Google Translate which are designed to help it. Those tools are developing very fast. I’m working on a literary project, Google-translated stories http://bit.ly/transtories and see how the script improves over time. One more thing: the English writer wouldn’t be able to run such a project, unless he knew a foreign language. It speaks for itself.

    We have to face it, technology is becoming more powerful and less visible. One day Twitter friends from India and Brazil won’t need English to understand each other. Translation scripts will work in the background and no one will be noticing them.

  2. Posted April 15, 2011 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    In an ideal world we’d all have the leisure to sit on our chaise-longues reading Proust in the original and eating peeled grapes. Alas, it takes an immense amount of time, effort and (yes) money to learn a foreign language to the level required to read literature, all three of which are in short supply for most people these days.

    For instance, I could get from zero to intermediate level Spanish in about 2 years, but would still be completely unable to read Borges except in the most meaningless way, giving me an experience vastly inferior to reading a good translation in which a proficient speaker alert to nuance and reference has drawn those things out for me.

    Meanwhile the reason non-”Anglos” learn English is rarely to read Joyce in the original but rather to access world culture, which is in English, or get a job, or because outside of their homelands nobody speaks their languages. It has nothing to do with superior cultural sophistication and everything to do with practical matters. And for as long as English remains the language of international business and commerce, then people who speak only English in publishing will get along just fine.

    And for the record I can and have read books in a second language (Russian).

    (Re-posted this here because I accidentally put it on the other thread)

  3. Posted April 15, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I arrived in Israel at 13. two years later – and with numerous books of literary prose read in Hebrew – I finally found that I’ve read a full book without even once opening the dictionary.
    It is possible to learn foreign languages, especially when you are not a member of an insular society.
    Although I can grope my way in some seven languages, all my resolutions to master Arabic are in vain. Partial insularity…

  4. Posted April 15, 2011 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Yes, but that’s total immersion. It’s completely different from trying to learn a new language at night school after work, or even at college when you are not exposed to the language anywhere else. It’s the best way to learn a language, but only open to a handful of people.

  5. Aili
    Posted April 20, 2011 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    While I admit that it takes time and a serious commitment to learn another language, I don’t really comprehend why one wouldn’t put in that effort if, say, one’s favorite book were in another language.

    From personal experience, I remember first reading Horace in an English translation and loathing him. When I was forced to look at him again in the original a few years later, I was blown away. And he is still one of my favorites.

    Also, you don’t have to be fluent to attempt reading the book in the original. I’ve found that bilingual editions are excellent for languages that I have only basic capabilities in. That way you can see the choices a translator is making; more easily pick up on nuance, because you’ve got two versions of the work; and you don’t need a dictionary. For languages relatively easy on English speakers, like Spanish, French, or German, bilingual editions give you a good taste of the original without the penalty from your ignorance if you aren’t willing to put in the commitment.

    And for Kelvin Smith: I get a little frustrated when Anglos are all lumped together as internationally illiterate. To answer one of your questions, the last book I read in the original is one that I am currently 3/4 of the way through: Les Catilinaires by Amelie Nothomb. To answer another: I was hooked on Nothomb after reading Fear and Trembling in English. Plenty of us exist, though I take your point that probably not enough do.

  6. Posted April 21, 2011 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I agree with this post to a certain extent.

    On plenty of occasions, I’ve tried to find books written in my native French but have found translations (from English) instead. In that case, I would obviously go in search of the original English novel. There’s nothing like reading something in its original language. But I would definitely read translations too.

    Had it not been for translations, I never would have been able to read Crime and Punishment, All Quiet on the Western Front, Night and many more classics that shaped my love of reading! If you know or are learning other languages, then by all means read books in those languages, but to get a taste of every culture, translations are the key.

    If I stick to French, English and Spanish books because those are the only languages I can read and comprehend, then I’m really limiting myself. And learning 10 different languages is logistically impossible.

    So, it all comes down to translations. If a translator is excellent at his or her job, then there’s no reason for the translation to be anything other than excellent.

    On another note, your post made me want to go out and find more books to read! Whether that’s going to be a translation or a book in its original language, I guess I’ll find out soon…

  7. sam89
    Posted April 25, 2011 at 4:11 am | Permalink

    i agree with this article. it really takes a lot for a person to learn other language. I am fond of learning various l; languages all over the world. I am using translation apps as my primary means of decoding other languages.

  8. John Warren
    Posted April 26, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of the old joke: “What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? American.”
    Seriously though, it is a bit of work, but rewarding work, to read a book in the original language. There is nothing like reading Saramago in Portuguese or Julio Cortázar in Spanish. Just like listening to music in another language that you can understand is enriching. Still, while i’d love to learn Russian someday in order to read Dostoevsky, I’m not likely to find the time soon, so I’ll stick with the best translation i can find. While I agree with the post’s sentiment, I would argue that it would be far better if more translations of foreign literature were made available in English.

  9. Posted April 29, 2012 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    Excellent article!
    I’m a regular reader of foreign books. In my opinion it’s one of the best ways to master foreign language if one doesn’t have an option of regular oral chat with foreigners as practice.
    I am from Germany and I’ve read Lord of the rings when I was young, first in German and didn’t like the book series at all and was wondering why so many people like it. Then I gave an original book a try and surprisingly I loved it!
    This was a good example of being lost too much in translation.

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