Five Experts Discuss Asian Translation and Translators

In News by Dennis Abrams

By Dennis Abrams

ARBlogo300Peter Gordon, editor of the Asian Review of Books, recently invited five experts (covering different languages, countries, and parts of the process) to discuss “translations, translators, and the role they play in bringing Asian literature to English-speaking readers.” Here are some highlights:

Peter Gordon, editor:

“When setting up the Man Asian Literary Prize, I included an additional award for the translator (if there was one) of the winning novel. This was not just a matter of acknowledging the translators’ contribution: the Prize was initially for as yet unpublished works, and I figured if anyone would know what interesting works were in the pipeline, it would be translators.”

I note this as one example demonstrating that process of getting a writer’s words to readers can be very complex. There is of course the matter of supply — writing, production and distribution of books — but also a question of demand, i.e. readers are the ones who in the end provide the funding for the entire exercise. Demand does not arise on its own, which is why there are marketing, book review publications, festivals, literary prizes and the like.

Where do translators and translations fit in this “eco-system?”

Lucas Klein (a Hong Kong-based translator of Chinese, specializing in poetry):

“The notion that any work of literature can affect and be affected by the world around it – including other works of literature in other languages – argues for literature existing as an ‘ecosystem.’

“The role of literature in that ecosystem, then, can seem both very large and very small. If Faulkner was influenced by the Bible and the great nineteenth century Russian novelists, say, and in turn influenced Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mo Yan, then not only was Faulkner influenced by the King James translators, but also by Constance Garnett, who translated Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in the early twentieth century, as Garcia Marquez and Mo Yan are influenced by the translators of Faulkner into Spanish and Chinese, while Howard Goldblatt is in turn influenced not only by Faulkner but by Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman – Garcia Marquez’s main translators into English – in the formation of the literary style he has used to represent and recreate Mo Yan’s voice in English.”

Sophie Lewis (Editor at Large at And Other Stories, a not-for-profit British publisher specializing in literary translations):

“The actual place of translators and translations is certainly lower in the hierarchy than…it should be. Translators do not routinely get royalties for their work, their names are routinely uncredited, the books they produce get fewer reviews in the general press (true at least in the Anglophone press) and bookshops treat the books as a niche product, requiring support, like any unfavored minority.

“That’s the esteem aspect of their place. On the other hand, translators/ions are as essential an aspect of the ‘ecosystem’ as they ever were. Nothing can replace them. It seems to me more a measure of the ad-hoc, even DIY approach that has always characterized publishing as an industry that the place of translation has remained so unaccounted-for that its costs and requirements of time and skill always appear ‘extra.’ A properly professional publishing industry would plan for and expect translation — and integrate it into regular systems, not treat it as an exotic and generally bothersome occasional pendant.”

Lucas Klein:

“As I’ve written elsewhere, if poets are what P.B. Shelley called ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world,’ then translators are the unacknowledged legislators of poetry. We are generally paid poorly (royalties, if we get them at all, are usually under 2% of the book’s net sales), overlooked in book reviews, and unrewarded for our translations in other areas of our working lives (e.g., if we are academics, as many of us are).

“My sense is that there’s a direct relationship between how we are treated – or mistreated, or simply ignored – and the real lack of literary translations published in English. The ecosystem or market place of publishers and readers in the English-speaking world seems to wish we didn’t exist, which doesn’t seem to far from what a lot of Americans seem to think about the rest of the world.

“This is both a supply problem and a demand problem, and I can’t imagine it can be solved without both areas being addressed simultaneously. While plenty of countries publish translations without widespread awareness of translation, I can’t imagine more translations can be published in English without growing this awareness at the same time. We have to know what we’re missing before we can demand what’s not there.”

Arunava Sinha (translator of classic, modern, and contemporary Bengali fiction and nonfiction into English):

“In India, publishers are becoming increasingly aware of the value of translations, for the originals are already tried and tested, often part of the canon. Therefore, translated titles are more likely to be accepted from a literary, if not necessarily commercial, point of view. They contribute both to the classic library and to edgier contemporary fiction where writers in English tend to play it safer with an eye either on the global market or on commercial prospects.

“Naturally, the question is complicated when editors have to trawl not one or two but over a dozen Indian languages for titles to publish in translation. While there is wide awareness of the classics, when it comes to contemporary writing, it’s translators who have to act as curators and agents as well.

“However, translated books seem to have more literary than commercial appeal among readers in India, even if the books have been very successful in the original language. There is a downward spiral of expectations here — publishers are resigned to translations not being commercially successful and support them with tepid marketing at best, which in turn further reduces the likelihood of discovery. Not even the books that win the major translation prize in India every year — the Crossword Award for books in translation — are promoted.

“For translators, therefore, it is largely a mission rather than a professional viable calling. (I daresay that’s true for translators the world over.) For most translators, therefore, one of the key rewards is a prominent display of their name on the cover. This is where I’d like to strike a personal note of dissent, however. While in theory it is true that a translator’s name might be the biggest selling point for a book, the reaction from readers to a translation is often less enthusiastic than to an original work in English. I am in favor of not presenting a book as a translation on the front cover – which the presence of the translator’s name will inevitably do – so that it gets a fair chance to be examined on its own merits. However, mine is a minority view here.”

Marcia Lynx Qualey:

“For the last fifty years, the tiny windows of Arabic literature in translation have been selected, in the main, via tastes and whims of individual translators. Publishing houses have generally lacked access to best-seller lists, reliable awards, Arabic readers, local criticism, and thus have almost entirely relied on the suggestions of translators.

“This has shifted a little with the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, popularly known as the ‘Arabic Booker.’ For the last seven years, therefore, publishers have had an informant that was not translator recommendations. There may be more such informants in the future: Bestseller lists, for instance, might come of new ventures like the Arabic ebookstore Kotobi.com.

But translators’ choices remain key, even with a big venture like the Library of Arabic Literature (LAL), published through NYU Press. The LAL has drawn up a list of pre-modern titles they want translated. But even here, in a project run by Arabists, there is also a strong reliance on suggestions from translators. So translators are not just creating individual works, but also shaping how we understand the whole of Arabic literature.

“…Translators often find themselves beholden to galling expectations and yet more galling packaging of their work, with uncountable dust jackets that feature a woman’s face peeking out from a full veil with alluring, kohl-rimmed eyes. Translator Adam Talib has complained that the landscape for Arab women characters in translation is ‘extremely fraught’ and that ‘there is a hostility in the reader’s’ and reviewers minds to characters who do not wholly conform to stereotype.

“Still, even with the annoying dust jackets, the dozens of translations published each year usually don’t reach an audience of more than a couple thousand. It is only a handful of translations, a tiny window inside a tiny window, that reaches a wider public.”

To read the entire discussion, click here.

About the Author

Dennis Abrams

Dennis Abrams is a contributing editor for Publishing Perspectives, responsible for news, children's publishing and media. He's also a restaurant critic, literary blogger, and the author of "The Play's The Thing," a complete YA guide to the plays of William Shakespeare published by Pentian, as well as more than 30 YA biographies and histories for Chelsea House publishers.