It took me a while to find time to read the whole thing, but the roundtable discussion that went up a week ago over at the Observer Translation Project is really excellent. Susan Harris (of Words Without Borders), Chad Post (of Open Letter and Three Percent), novelist Norman Manea, and translator Susan Bernofsky offer thoughtful exchanges on topics such as marketing and editing translated literature, team translations, issues of domestication in translation, and the appeal and value of international literature. For example, here’s Susan Bernofsky on editing translations:

The same editing skills that apply to the best editors of English apply to the best editors of literature translated into English as well. Great editors have a sixth sense that tells them exactly what a book’s style wants to be and shows them the spots where it diverges from this ideal. If there’s an outright mistake in the translation, an editor may or may not be able to spot it (depending on whether it breaks the skin of the book’s mood) – but that’s not the editor’s job, that’s the job of the translator.

The whole thing is highly recommended.



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.


Translating the Greats

March 8, 2009

This year’s AWP conference featured a panel entitled Translation: On the Page and Beyond, which touched on many thought-provoking issues relating to literary translation. Interesting to me was a peripheral statement made by Olivia Sears, editor of the translation journal, Two Lines, who pointed out that what publishers were looking for were new voices, that new translations of Dante, Homer, or Lorca were really only needed every 10 years. The take home message of such a statement is somewhat eclipsed by the revelation of our thirst for familiar works of great art made in our own image. Are new translations of classic works really needed every 10 years?

In 2008, a new bilingual edition of Lorca’s “Poeta en Nueva York” was published translated by Pablo Medina and Mark Statman (it is worth mentioning that it is the first new translation to appear in ten years). The translation’s selling point is found on the back cover of the edition, where it is written:

After September 11, 2001, poets Pablo Medina and Mark Statman returned to this seventy-year-old work. Struck by how closely it spoke to the atmosphere of New York after the World Trade Center crumbled, they felt compelled to create a new English version of the text—translating Lorca’s words with a contemporary poet’s eye, allowing their work to uphold his surrealistic technique, mesmerizing complexity, and fierce emotion unlike any other translation to date.

Clearly, there’s some marketing at work here. But it is interesting to think about the relationship between the historic moment as we perceive it and the need to publish new translations to cope in this most important “now”. While the work in its original language is left untouched, allowed to grow awkward and out of style (ok, maybe not in Lorca’s case), a translation is almost expected to be redone, to tell the same story spruced up in the latest tendencies. Do we really want our classics to sound like each successive generation of our writers? Why else would they need to be published every ten years?

Been kicking these thoughts around, any comments?


Europa Editions

February 26, 2009

Nice writeup in the New York Times on Europa Editions, which made a splash last year with Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Their recent success, despite the fact they only publish literary translations, stands in stark contrast to current conditions in most of the American publishing industry.

Some larger publishers are starting to envy Europa’s selection and its frankly retro publishing model. Mr. Carroll “finds things, picks things up for a little bit of money and makes a lot out of them,” said Jonathan Galassi, publisher of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. “Most of publishing was once that way. It wasn’t about big money so much. He’s sort of preserving the old values of it’s-all-about-the-book and connecting the book with readers.”

It’s all about the book, huh? Amazing that this appears to be a revelation.