In Other Words

A New Great Wall

Why the crisis in translation matters.


One of the truly great war correspondents, a monumental figure who reported from Afghanistan for 20 years and won almost every literary prize offered in Italy; a humanistic French-Tunisian scholar who has sought a middle way between Islam and secularism; an Eritrean writer whose epic saga of his country’s troubled history subverts both official versions, the Ethiopian and the American. They are some of the most important voices in the world today, honored intellectuals in their own countries. You’re not likely to have heard of Ettore Mo, Abdelwahab Meddeb, or Alemseged Tesfai, however, because they are rarely translated into English. In the English-speaking world, in fact, major publishing houses are inexplicably resistant to any kind of translated material at all.

The statistics are shocking in this age of so-called globalization: In the United States and Britain, only 2 to 3 percent of books published each year are translations, compared with almost 35 percent in Latin America and Western Europe. Horace Engdahl, then the secretary of the Swedish Academy, chided the United States in 2008 for its literary parochialism: "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature."

But this is no mere national embarrassment: The dearth of translated literature in the English-speaking world represents a new kind of iron curtain we have constructed around ourselves. We are choosing to block off access to the writing of a large and significant portion of the world, including movements and societies whose potentially dreadful political impact on us is made even more menacing by our general lack of familiarity with them. Our stubborn and willful ignorance could have — and arguably, already has had — dangerous consequences. The problem starts in the Anglophone publishing industry, where translated books are not only avoided but actively discouraged. They can be commercially successful (think of the cachet enjoyed in the United States by The Name of the Rose, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or anything by Roberto Bolaño), and still most U.S. and British publishers resist the very idea of translation. Some years ago, a senior editor at a prestigious house told me that he could not even consider taking on another translation because he already had two on his list.

Publishers have their excuses, of course. A persistent but not very convincing explanation is that English-language readers are, for some reason, put off by translations. This is nothing but a publishing shibboleth that leads to a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Is a limited readership for translations the reason so few are published in the Anglophone world? Or is that readership limited because English-language publishers provide their readers with so few translations? Certainly, the number of readers of literature — in any language — is on the decline, and serious, dedicated editors face real difficulties bringing good books to the marketplace. But that is not the fault of translation. And ignoring literature in translation in no way helps solve the problem. On the contrary, we need to ask what we forfeit as readers and as a society if we lose access to translated literature by voluntarily reducing its presence in our community or quietly standing by as it is drastically and arbitrarily curtailed.

The crisis in translation does not hurt only English-speaking readers — it affects everyone who cares about knowledge worldwide. For one, the English-language market is immense and generally located in areas where the population tends to be literate and prosperous enough to purchase books. Then, too, a truism has it that a body of work must be translated into English before a writer can even be considered for the Nobel Prize in literature because it is claimed, perhaps with reason, that ours is the only language all the judges read. Even more significant may be the fact that English often serves as the linguistic bridge for the translation of a book into a number of Asian and African languages. For a book written in Spanish to enter the enormous potential market of China, for example, it must often be translated into English first. By limiting English translation, we’re turning off a spigot that flows not just to us but to the rest of the world as well.

Most important, we confront a hovering and constant threat to civil liberties as we reduce the number of translations we publish. The free exchange of literary ideas, insights, and intuitions — a basic reciprocity of thought facilitated by the translation of works from other cultures — is central to a free society. Dictators know this: They place tremendous importance on language, how it is used, to what end, and by whom. Imprisoned writers, banned books, censored media, restrictions on translations, even repeated attempts to abolish what are called "minority" languages are all clear indications that tyrannies take language, books, and access to information and ideas very seriously. Democracies have an obligation to take these matters even more seriously — and at the moment, the English-speaking world is failing in that task.

It may well be that in the best of all possible worlds — the one that predates the construction of the Tower of Babel — all humans were able to communicate with all other humans and the function of translators was quite literally unthinkable. But here we are in a world whose shrinking store of languages comes to roughly 6,000, a world where isolationism and rampaging nationalism are on the rise and countries are beginning to erect actual as well as metaphorical walls around themselves. I do not believe I am overstating the case when I say that translation can be, for readers as well as writers, one of the ways past a menacing babble of incomprehensible tongues and closed frontiers into mutual comprehension. It is not a possibility we can safely turn our backs on.

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