Cultural Homogeneity and the Future of Literary Translation

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A creeping homogenization is developing in prose fiction, a kind of generic international content and style that transcends national borders.

By Burton Pike

Translator Burton Pike

The equation of language with nation and the nation-state reached its peak in the 19th century. It began to break down seriously around 1900, with the rise of linguistics, semiotics, and language-oriented philosophy and psychology. Language became an independent area of intellectual investigation, investigation directed toward language as such.

In our time, language and nation have become increasingly decoupled from each other. Literary language is no longer considered the marker of a nation; it has become simply instrumental, a medium of communication. This is having an impact on the writing of literature, and consequently on translation.

I used to tell my students in translation courses that in preparing to translate a writer they could never know enough about the writer’s culture. But looking at the writing coming out of Europe now, I’m not so sure. Now I ask myself: What other culture? Or, what other culture? A creeping homogenization is developing in prose fiction, a kind of generic international content and style that transcends national borders.  A broad horizontal culture seems to be replacing vertical national cultures. The critic Richard Eder writes in a review of a novel by Geoff Dyer that “his novel is an early specimen of what you might call European Community fiction. Luke, the vaguely intending writer, and Alex are British and need no papers to get laboring jobs in a book warehouse [in Paris]. Nicole, a Yugoslav immigrant, and Sarah, an American, are employed more formally, the first as a secretary, the second as an interpreter.”

Literature is no longer regarded as the sacred bearer of high culture. The Russian formalists’ distinction between literary language and everyday language has faded away. Nora Tarnopolsky writes, for instance, that “Hebrew is becoming an ordinary language, and its literature, a normal literature, no longer the exclusive province of high-minded ideals and nationalistic fervor…[C]haracters in contemporary Israeli fiction have turned away from ideals and ideology, away from the burdens of history, toward their own individual lives, however outlandish.”

American scholars and students who discuss French or German philosophers or continental European theory frequently see no need to consult foreign sources in the original language, or to take into account what circumstances and cultural traditions in the original language might lie behind them: a colleague of mine once described contemporary English departments as “the monolingual in pursuit of the multicultural.”

In an interview in Austria Kultur, the cultural magazine published by the Austrian government, the writer Jakob Lind describes himself as “a Viennese-born Dutchman turned Israeli with an Austrian passport, Eastern European parents.” Lind lives in England, writes in German. If I translate him, what culture am I translating?

An article in the New York Times asks: “…what does French culture signify these days when there are some 200 million French speakers in the world, but only 65 million are actually French?”

Certain canonical texts about translation now seem out of date. Walter Benjamin’s tragic view of history included a tragic view of translation. His famous 1923 essay “The Task of the Translator” rests on the notion of the sacredness of the word, and insists on a translation that will recreate the sacred spirit of the original in another language. But what if writers and readers no longer think that the surface of a literary text conceals layered depths that the translator must labor to transmit?  What if translation is no longer thought of as an art but as piece-work?

This cultural change also affects how writers themselves regard language. A recent book on translation notes that since the 1960s there has been a steep decline in the number of English-language poets and prose writers who do translations in addition to their own writing. The author notes that younger writers in English are also less likely to know foreign languages, less likely to be interested in the forms of language, including their own, and who, because they regard language as instrumental rather than essential, are less in love with language as part of their literary work.

Burton Pike is professor emeritus of comparative literature and Germanic languages and literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is known for his translations of the works of Robert Musil, Rilke and Goethe, among others. These remarks were prepared for a German Book Office panel discussion, NYC December 12, 2012.

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