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Is the Translation of Spanish Works into English the Key to International Success?

Publishing Perspectives has an interesting article that suggests the best way for Latin American writing to get international exposure is to be translated into English. This is especially true if one hopes to break into Asian markets.  It is a fascinating statement, suggesting that English language markets are the gateway into other languages. It gives an almost outsized power to English as an arbiter of cultural maters. It is even a bigger statement when so little foreign language fiction is translated into English. I’m not completely sure the need to translate into English is quite as prevalent when translating between European languages, but that still keeps books stuck within the European context.

The award underscores the ongoing question of access of foreign literature to what is increasingly becoming the international language of commerce and literature. In a recent article for Spanish organization Real Instituto Elcano, Cartagena Hay Festival director Cristina Fuentes affirmed that an estimated 250-500 million people across the world speak English as their first language and an estimated 1 billion as a second language.

This preponderance renders it the gateway to translation for other languages. Edith Grossman, renowned for her translations of Cervantes´ Don Quixote and Gabriel García Márquez, stated in an article for Foreign Policy that English often serves as the linguistic bridge for books aiming to reach a number of Asian and African languages: for a book written in Spanish to enter the Chinese market, it must often be translated into English first. (For further exploration of this topic, see “Edith Grossman Frowns: The Challenges of Translation in America.”)

In Europe, statistics show literary translations surpass those in many other segments of publishing. A 2012 survey of European publishers carried out by Literature Across Frontiers revealed that the majority of translated titles are fiction, more than 75% of translations for all publishers surveyed. Earlier, the organization had carried out a study on trends across the continent between 1990 and 2005, which revealed that as of 1996, English as a source language for translations represented double the share in translated literature titles of the next 25 most important European languages together. As of 2005, English was followed —and the gap was wide — by French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, Japanese and Russian.

This is all well and good, and it is important to show that Latina American literature is more than Magical Realism. However, there is a darker flip side that in commenting on a Publishing Perspectives article Chad at Three Percent noted:

I’m not sure what direction this took in the panel discussion, but what’s always interested me (mostly because of the publishing angle), is the way that authors around the world ape current trends in Anglo-American fiction in hopes of getting their work translated into English. That sounds a bit dismissive and damning, but I remember talking with editors in Germany a dozen years ago and having someone remark, “[Germans] used to write those experimental novels, now we write like Americans!” Which totally bummed me out. The retaining of something unique about a country’s “book culture” is something I think is extremely important. And in some ways, it’s the responsibility of (certain) publishers to help preserve this by publishing and promoting works that are “uniquely French” (if there is such a thing), or at least not “from France, but just like Freedom!” Otherwise, what’s the point?

The article in question was  Cultural Homogeneity and the Future of Literary Translation Burton Pike suggested that the there is a growing international style based on the globalization of literature and the transnational nature of modern authors. I believe it to a certain degree, but I’m not completely convinced. In a cultural sense, perhaps writers are less “foreign”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the works are completely homogenized.

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.”

Still, I’m reminded of what Jorge Volpi recently said in an interview with the Quarterly Conversation:

DA and CF: In recent statements you have declared Roberto Bolaño to be the last Latin American writer. What does this mean?

JV: Certainly there is some provocation to this statement, a small boutade like the ones Bolaño loved so much, but there is also something true to it. Bolaño seems to me to be the last writer that really felt part of a Latin American tradition, the last writer that responded with a knowledge of those models. Not only did he have a battle with the Latin American Boom but with all of the Latin American tradition—in particular with Borges and Cortázar—but that extends back to the 19th century. His was a profoundly political literature that aspired to be Latin American in a way different from that of the Boom, but that was still Latin American. I believe that this tradition stops with Bolaño. After him, my generation and the subsequent generations, I don’t see any authors that really feel part of the Latin American tradition, or that might be responding to these models. They seem to respond to more global models. There is no knowledge of a strong Latin American identity. This is the central theme of this book [El Insomnio de Bolívar] that has won the Casa de las Americas Award. Latin American literature seems to dissolve as a unity, and it is only possible to understand it as a collage of fragments that no longer form, as in the times of the Latin American Boom, a cathedral. Now, writers in the distinct countries of Latin American feel part of their own nationality, and maybe what they are beginning to form are models whose paradigm would no longer be a giant edifice, a cathedral, for example, a Latin American temple, but rather holograms. That is to say, little fragments that contain information that is Latin American, almost in an unconscious fashion, but that above all respond to an individual will and that are no longer a matter of identity.

I have mixed opinions on all of this, but I do know that I’m always surprised by the number of English language books that are translated into Spanish. There are more than enough books out there to influence that writing. In some ways, if you read The Future Is Not Ours you will get that sense that the short story has homogenized a little.

What do you think?

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One comment on “Is the Translation of Spanish Works into English the Key to International Success?

  1. Definitely food for thought. The idea of English-language translations as a double-edged sword, granting foreign lit. a greater audience but at the same time diluting it’s foreign-ness. I hadn’t thought of this before and I thank you for the thorough post on the subject. Your last paragraph reminded me of something I heard from a number of women poets in Argentina: when they began writing poetry, they said U.S. female poets that had been translated into Spanish served as their inspiration to enter a male-dominated arena. This I learned while helping my friend, Brandi Homan, with interviews for an interesting project she has in mind: having US women poets translate Argentine women poets, and then vis versa.

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