When The University of Texas Press (UT Press) started publishing Latin American Literature in translation in the 1960s there weren’t many other publishers competing for acquisitions. That had changed by the time UT Press reassessed its LiT program in 2010. They found a vibrant if small industry that was bringing important work into English and publicizing and distributing these books through traditional publishing channels.
UT Press looked back at the decades of translated books they had published, many of which had gone out of print and were no longer available except for used copies, if copies could be found at all. As part of a press-wide effort to bring back into print hundreds of out-of-print books that UT Press had the rights to, 39 titles were reintroduced as part of the Clásicos/Clássicos Latin American Masterpieces in English Series. UT Press sponsoring editor Casey Kittrell says “Almost every title also has an ebook edition for the first time, a major effort to make these titles as accessible to readers as possible. Some ebook editions are now outselling the print versions.”
El Confidential had one of those yearly articles about the Frankfurt book fair that purports to gauge the trends in publishing. This year it is about the need to have one’s book translated. It is an interesting statement because as I’ve read and mentioned in these pages before, the drive towards translation can also make one write to the international market, not your own. It seems to be one of the down sides of translation, which I find otherwise invaluable.
Es el retrato de una vieja canción que muy pocas veces se repite: escritores labrados en el silencio de sus horas libres y en la seguridad de un empleo insatisfactorio. Lectores por compulsión que con su primera novela logran hacer de su afición su profesión. Es la leyenda que nutre las escuelas de escritores, la ilusión del recién llegado y el mito del encuentro con el gran público. Pero algo ha cambiado en el camino del éxito de un novato: a la fiesta se han unido las editoriales extranjeras.
Autores desconocidos que venden traducciones a decenas de países antes de haber sido publicados en España, antes de tener buenas críticas y de demostrar que son capaces de vender, vender y vender. Antes, incluso, de ser autores. No tienen un rostro conocido en la televisión, no saben a quién ni a dónde mandar el manuscrito en el que llevan años trabajando, sin experiencia en el maltrecho y perverso universo editorial. Espontáneos que, a pesar de todo, triunfan con su primera novela y venden miles de libros. Es el premio gordo menos casual de todas las loterías y apuestas de un Estado donde cada vez hay menos dinero para la lectura.
Las excepciones que convierten las anécdotas en hazañas son la noticia que confirma un boom de la literatura de autores españoles en el extranjero, a los que les han desbrozado la senda Arturo Pérez-Reverte, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Javier Sierra, Matilde Asensi, María Dueñas o Félix J. Palma, entre otros. Todos ellos estaban avalados por su nombre o sus ventas, pero en la primera parte de la temporada literaria han surgido tres novelas de éxito de escritores noveles, que además firman los derechos para la adaptación al cine.
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?
Tim Parks has a fascinating article in the New York Review of Books about how in some countries in Europe the translation into a foreign language in Europe has is completing with the English originals. He posits that in countries where English is commonly spoken as a second language, that readers are more interested in reading books from English writers, and given a choice between a translation from English and the original they will pick the original. This has lead to the phenomenon where English language authors are considered the best writers. Instead of broadening access to writers, it has had the effect of limiting narrowing access. I don’t think this phenomenon is as pronounced in Spain, but I do marvel at how many English speaking authors make it in to Spanish. On reading through a book of interview I was also amazed that outside of some classic short story authors, most of the influences were Spanish or English language authors only. Fascinating stuff. (Via)
When I asked people to list titles they had recently read, they seemed surprised themselves how prevalently English and American, rather than simply foreign, these novels were. A linguist from Amsterdam University, for example, went away and jotted down the names of all the novelists on his shelves: fifty-eight Anglophone authors (many were Booker and Pulitzer winners), nineteen from eight other countries and twenty Dutch. Until he wrote down this list, he remarked, he had not been aware how far his reading was driven by publicity and availability. Indeed, no one spoke of any method behind his or her choice of novels (as opposed to non-fiction, where people declared very specific and usually local interests).
“I read foreign novels because they’re better,” was a remark I began to expect (surprisingly, a senior member of the Dutch Fund for Literature also said this to me). I asked readers if that could really be the case; why would foreign books be “better” across the board, in what way? As the responses mounted up, a pattern emerged: these people had learned excellent English and with it an interest in Anglo-Saxon culture in their school years. They had come to use their novel-reading (but not other kinds of reading) to reinforce this alternative identity, a sort of parallel or second life that complemented the Dutch reality they lived in and afforded them a certain self esteem as initiates in a wider world.
Apart from the immediate repercussions on the book market, where there is now fierce competition between English and Dutch editions of English language novels, the phenomenon suggests a few things about reading and the modern psyche. There appears to be a tension, or perhaps necessary balance, between evasion and realism in fiction, between a desire to read seriously about real things—to feel I am not wasting my time, but engaging intelligently with the world—and simultaneously a desire to escape the confines of one’s immediate community, move into the territory of the imagination, and perhaps fantasize about far away places.
Three Percent has updated their translation database for 2011 (you can see the whole list here (Excel file)). But I thought it would be interesting to look at just the Spanish language fiction, especially if you don’t have Excel. Many of the names are familiar such as Bloano, Volpi, Aira, Castellanos Moya. I recognize Felix J Palma from Spain and even own one of his books. But there are many I don’t recognize at all.
|Seamstress and the Wind||Cesar||Aira||Argentina||Rosalie||Knecht||New Directions||Fiction||12.95||June|
|My Two Worlds||Sergio||Chejfec||Argentina||Margaret||Carson||Open Letter||Fiction||12.95||July|
|Prose from the Observatory||Julio||Cortazar||Argentina||Anne||McLean||Archipelago||Fiction||18||June|
|Vertical Poetry: Last Poems||Roberto||Juarroz||Argentina||Mary||Crow||White Pine||Poetry||16||June|
|Seconds Out||Martin||Kohan||Argentina||Nick||Caistor||Serpent’s Tail||Fiction||14.95||Apr|
|Passionate Nomads||Maria Rosa||Lojo||Argentina||Brett Alan||Sanders||Aliform||Fiction||14.95||June|
|Sweet Money||Ernesto||Mallo||Argentina||Katherine||Silver||Bitter Lemon||Fiction||14.95||Oct|
|Secret in Their Eyes||Eduardo||Sacheri||Argentina||John||Cullen||Other Press||Fiction||15.95||Oct|
|Scars||Juan Jose||Saer||Argentina||Steve||Dolph||Open Letter||Fiction||14.95||Dec|
|Dark Desires and the Others||Luisa||Valenzuela||Argentina||Susan||Clark||Dalkey Archive||Fiction||15.95||May|
|Lizard’s Tale||Jose||Donoso||Chile||Suzanne Jill||Levine||Northwestern University Press||Fiction||24.95||Oct|
|Chilean Poets: A New Anthology||Jorge||Etcheverry||Chile||various||various||Marick Press||Poetry||16.95||Apr|
|Absent Sea||Carlos||Franz||Chile||Leland||Chambers||McPherson & Company||Fiction||25||June|
|Shadow of What We Were||Luis||Sepulveda||Chile||Howard||Curtis||Europa Editions||Fiction||15||Feb|
|Good Offices||Evelio||Rosero||Colombia||Anne||McLean||New Directions||Fiction||12.95||Sept|
|Secret History of Costaguana||Juan Gabriel||Vasquez||Colombia||Anne||McLean||Riverhead||Fiction||26.95||June|
|Micrograms||Jorge Carrera||Andrade||Ecuador||Alejandro de||Acosta||Wave Books||Poetry||16||Nov|
|Tyrant Memory||Horacio Castellanos||Moya||Honduras||Katherine||Silver||New Directions||Fiction||15.95||June|
|Afterglow||Alberto||Blanco||Mexico||Jennifer||Rathbun||Bitter Oleander Press||Poetry||21||June|
|Destiny and Desire||Carlos||Fuentes||Mexico||Edith||Grossman||Random House||Fiction||27||Jan|
|Three Messages and a Warning||Eduardo Jimenez||Mayo||Mexico||various||various||Small Beer||Fiction||16||Dec|
|Negro Marfil/Ivory Black||Myriam||Moscona||Mexico||Jen||Hofer||Les Figues||Poetry||15||Sept|
|In Spite of the Dark Silence||Jorge||Volpi||Mexico||Olivia||Maciel||Swan Isle Press||Fiction||28||Jan|
|Origin of Species and Other Poems||Ernesto||Cardenal||Nicaragua||John||Lyons||Texas Tech University Press||Poetry||21.95||Apr|
|Reasons for Writing Poetry||Eduardo||Chirinos||Peru||G. J.||Racz||Salt||Poetry||15.95||Jan|
|Against Professional Secrets||Cesar||Vallejo||Peru||Joseph||Mulligan||Roof Books||Poetry||14.95||Apr|
|Fire Wind||Yvan||Yauri||Peru||Marta||del Pozo||Ugly Duckling||Poetry||14||Feb|
|I’m a Box||Natalia||Carrero||Spain||Johanna||Warren||AmazonCrossing||Fiction||13.95||July|
|Waiting for Robert Capa||Susana||Fortes||Spain||Adriana||Lopez||HarperCollins||Fiction||14.99||Oct|
|Scale of Maps||Belen||Gopegui||Spain||Mark||Schafer||City Lights||Fiction||14.95||Jan|
|Exiled from Almost Everywhere||Juan||Goytisolo||Spain||Peter||Bush||Dalkey Archive||Fiction||13.95||Apr|
|Nijar Country||Juan||Goytisolo||Spain||Peter||Bush||Lumen Books||Fiction||15||May|
|Barcelona Noir||Adriana||Lopez||Spain||Achy||Obejas||Akashic Books||Fiction||17.95||May|
|Map of Time||Felix||Palma||Spain||Nick||Caistor||Atria||Fiction||26||June|
|No World Concerto||A. G.||Porta||Spain||Rhett||McNeil||Dalkey Archive||Fiction||15.95||Oct|
|Procession of Shadows||Julian||Rios||Spain||Nick||Caistor||Dalkey Archive||Fiction||13.95||May|
|A Bit of Everything||Juan||Valera||Spain||Johanna||Warren||AmazonCrossing||Fiction||13.95||Feb|
|Dona Luz||Juan||Valera||Spain||Kenneth Evan||Barger||AmazonCrossing||Fiction||13.95||Feb|
|Never Any End to Paris||Enrique||Vila-Matas||Spain||Anne||McLean||New Directions||Fiction||15.95||May|
The Market Place of Ideas podcast has a great interview with three of César Aira’s translators. Definately worth a listen if you are interested in César Aira, translation, or how the various traditions in writing in Spanish is different than those of the United States and how that shapes the market for translation.
11.09.21. Colin Marshall talks to Chris Andrews, Katherine Silver, and Rosalie Knecht, English translators of the Argentine novelist César Aira, whom some readers in the Anglosphere are now finding as exciting as Borges. Despite having published over fifty books since 1975, Aira has only recently broken into English with novels such as An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, How I Became a Nun, Ghosts, The Literary Conference, and the new The Seamstress and the Wind that showcase his ability to balance the fine-grained observational detail of with outlandish fantasy and the methodical work habits and genre sensibilities of a mainstream author with the experimentalism and caprice of the avant-garde.
Arabic Literature (in English) has been running a series of interviews with translators about what one should and shouldn’t do. The translators translate from more than just Arabic, but also Spanish, and poetry. It is a great feature. I found the one for about Spanish translations fascinating, in part because one of the translators has already translated works by María Shua who I just discovered the other day. Read the full interview here.
from Lisa Carter
1. Love the work
You are about to spend an inordinate amount of time with any literary translation, so make sure you love it. You can love the text itself, the style, the author, the opportunity the project presents, the editor, the publisher, any number of things. Just remember that initial attraction to the work as the weeks and months pass, when the challenge becomes daunting, when you doubt yourself or your ability. Remember to love the work.
5. For Spanish translators or others whose source language has many regional variations: Find good regional dictionaries, including lexicons of slang. In my arsenal, for example, are: El diccionario etimológico del lunfardo (Argentine slang) by Oscar Conde, Francisco J. Santamaría’s Diccionario de mejicanismos [sic] and a number of country-specific online dictionaries.
David Bellos had an interesting article in the Independent about how Google Translate works: it use translations made by people. As someone who once seriously considered studding computational linguistics, it is both fascinating and disappointing. In some ways the machine can’t really do it. And that’s especially obvious when it tries to translate the indirect object pronoun of the romance languages. (via Scott)
The corpus it can scan includes all the paper put out since 1957 by the EU in two dozen languages, everything the UN and its agencies have ever done in writing in six official languages, and huge amounts of other material, from the records of international tribunals to company reports and all the articles and books in bilingual form that have been put up on the web by individuals, libraries, booksellers, authors and academic departments.
A good number of English-language detective novels, for example, have probably been translated into both Icelandic and Farsi. They thus provide ample material for finding matches between sentences in the two foreign languages; whereas Persian classics translated into Icelandic are surely far fewer, even including those works that have themselves made the journey by way of a pivot such as French or German. This means that John Grisham makes a bigger contribution to the quality of GT’s Icelandic-Farsi translation device than Rumi or Halldór Laxness ever will. And the real wizardry of Harry Potter may well lie in his hidden power to support translation from Hebrew into Chinese. GT-generated translations themselves go up on the web and become part of the corpus that GT scans, producing a feedback loop that reinforces the probability that the original GT translation was acceptable. But it also feeds on human translators, since it always asks users to suggest a better translation than the one it provides – a loop pulling in the opposite direction, towards greater refinement. It’s an extraordinarily clever device. I’ve used it myself to check I had understood a Swedish sentence more or less correctly, for example, and it is used automatically as a webpage translator whenever you use a search engine.