Have the Anglos Lost Too Much in Translation?

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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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Guest Contributor

Guest contributors to Publishing Perspectives have diverse backgrounds in publishing, media and technology. They live across the globe and bring unique, first-hand experience to their writing.