Towards a Translation Culture
Diagnosis of a profession
Today anglophone literary translators, if they choose to take the initiative and submit a proposal to publishers, inevitably face multiple rejections. Few translators enjoy the luxury of a steady stream of commissions, so that if they want to translate, they must necessarily develop their own projects and hope to locate a receptive editor. Yet so many factors conspire against them. Since the Second World War, the volume of English-language translations published annually has averaged a tiny fraction of total book output, two to four percent, and the figure is likely to decrease in view of the less-than-sanguine prospects of book publishing in competition against other culture industries, especially those involving electronic media. Behind these factors lies an unfavorable cultural situation. As English achieved global hegemony during the past century, anglophone cultures grew increasingly insular, complacent in the awareness that English was the most translated language worldwide, less interested in foreign cultural traditions and trends (except, perhaps, fashion and food), and much less hospitable to literary translation.
There is also the persistent financial problem. Since 1900, literary translations have not been consistently profitable for publishers in the United Kingdom or the United States. Most translations of fiction, poetry, and other literary genres have incurred a loss within one or two years of publication, even in the case of writers who later entered the modern canon, and relatively few translations have been retained on backlists. Proust, Mann, Svevo, Rilke were all commercial failures when the first English translations of their work were published. Imagine, then, the myriad foreign writers whose works have been translated but quickly faded into oblivion. Robin Healey’s bibliography listing English translations of twentieth-century Italian literature includes roughly 1400 works published between 1929 and 1997. Most of these translations cannot be found anywhere except the British Library and the Library of Congress. The occasional success of a contemporary foreign novelist like Roberto Bolaño or Stieg Larsson is misleading. The current situation has not really changed enough to indicate any across-the-board upsurge in sales of translations or any expansion of the readership for them.
Hence most translators will be fortunate if they are able to translate a handful of literary works during their careers and even more fortunate if the translation projects that they themselves initiate see print. A translator like Ralph Manheim published over one hundred translations, Richard Howard over one hundred and fifty, Joachim Neugroschel and Anthea Bell each over two hundred. Those days are gone, however, and whether they will return seems doubtful, certainly not in the foreseeable future. The fact is that too many translators are vying for too few projects. After publishing fifteen book-length translations over the past thirty years, I can testify that a track record does not matter. It might even work against you, if your work has provoked controversy. I find it just as difficult to publish a translation today as I did when I was starting out.
This state of affairs, however, is not only to be recorded and lamented. It must also be interrogated. What, I want to ask, can a translator learn from rejections? I will present two recent instances from my own experience, although I have chosen to preserve the anonymity of the editors in question. What follows is not a personal attack on these particular editors, but a critique of current editorial methods and their assumptions about translation. My account, therefore, should not be dismissively reduced to sheer sour grapes. What happened to me can and does happen to many other translators. I have decided to go public in an effort to engage issues that urgently need to be discussed by both translators and readers of translations alike.
Tales of rejection
In the spring of 2009 I was translating a book by a contemporary Catalan poet named Ernest Farrés, and as I had done in the past with other projects, I was submitting the poems to magazines. My aim was to create a readership for a foreign writer who was entirely unknown in the anglophone world. I had received a number of acceptances, but as typically happens they were outnumbered by the rejections, which were couched in form letters or the most laconic of handwritten notes and emails.
After an editor with whom I was acquainted had rejected some poems, I questioned the decision. I didn’t expect the rejection to be reconsidered. No, I rather wanted to force the magazine to do what magazines rarely do: to make explicit the standards by which it judged the translations, or if not this particular submission, then translations in general. Editor X was kind enough to reply, explaining that the poems “didn’t make us feel as if the tops of our heads were taken off.” I pressed further: had Editor X ever considered that translations, by their very nature, should be judged differently from original compositions in English, or that the standard might include but should nonetheless differ from a visceral reaction that is evidently rooted in a homegrown sensibility? After all, Emily Dickinson was being quoted at me. Editor X thought my view novel and promised to give it some thought, but the conversation stopped there.
Yet I could have taken it much further. Should an English translation of a twenty-first-century Catalan poet, I would have asked, be judged according to a concept of poetry formulated by a nineteenth-century poet in the United States? Why should we hold a poet who writes in a minor language and whose literature is underrepresented in English to a standard articulated by a poet who, after a shaky initial reception, now occupies an unshakeable position in the canon of American literature? Are the values enshrined in that canon inimical to Catalan and possibly other foreign poetries? Can a poem that took the top off the head of a reclusive, self-absorbed woman in nineteenth-century New England do the same to an anglophone reader today? How appropriate or fair is the application of that metaphor to translations of poems written by a Catalan man who works as a cultural editor for a Barcelona-based newspaper? Or is the problem that my translations seem too foreign, requiring a response that is not visceral but less immediate or spontaneous, more thoughtful, especially since the poems are ekphrastic, all based on paintings by Edward Hopper? Does not the use of this painter offer a basis for understanding what is distinctive and perhaps culturally specific in the foreign poet’s writing by foregrounding his take on an American cultural icon? Or was the magazine pursuing a universality that few foreign poetries can--or, I would add, should--support in translation?