In Defense of Translation

June 30, 2009

Two recent letters to the editors of the New York Times have made vociferous — and much-needed — calls for more recognition of translation in American literary culture. In the first, Ezra E. Fitz gently points out that an adulatory reviewer of a García Márquez biography

notes that García Márquez studied Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner and Proust “in Spanish translation,” but when he raves about the “gorgeous sentences” in “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” lauding it as “a heroic demonstration of man’s triumph over language,” he neglects to mention whether he read those sentences in Spanish or English.

How often we seem to forget that the brilliance of world literature is only available to us thanks to the brilliance of numberless and nearly anonymous translators.

In the second letter, Jason Grunebaum objects to American publishers’ refusal to publish South Asian literature in translation:

Why hasn’t an American publishing house brought out a single contemporary Hindi novelist in translation in more than a generation? Not to mention the scarcity of translations of important writers from other South Asian regional languages like Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Punjabi, Telugu, Gujarati, and Urdu — just to name a few in which important South Asian writers write.

I’ve often thought of the South Asian literature-in-English phenomenon as a giftwrapped boon to reluctant and provincial publishers who want to give their readers that intriguing whiff of the exotic but are afraid of putting them off with a work in translation. And it’s a vicious cycle, too: having filled the South Asia quota with a number of works written in English, there’s no compelling reason for the complacent publisher to seek out works originally written in other languages.

-ar

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