Gained in Translation

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Gained in Translation

In April 1992, I had a rendezvous with my long-distance lover, Aleš, in Rome. I had traveled on a transatlantic flight from New York and he had traveled by train from Slovenia. Sitting down on a bench in the Piazza Navona waiting for him to appear, I opened the book that I had started on the plane the night before: Immortality by Milan Kundera. While it may be difficult to become absorbed in a tale of fictional lovers when waiting at the center of an empty piazza for a real lover to appear, Kundera’s narrative sweep and originality were such that they drew me in. I had finished one chapter – the one that ends with Paul racing to Agnes’ hospital bed desperate for a last kiss – and was turning the page to embark upon another, when I sensed someone beside me on the cool stone bench and felt the touch of a hand at the small of my back. I looked around to see Aleš’s face, long-distance no more, looking into my own.
In that instant, Kundera’s Paul and Agnes vanished into the bright sunlit square. Aleš, unknowingly taking up Paul’s fictional impulse, leaned in to kiss me but just as his lips were about to reach mine, he stopped and let out a cry of surprise. “Wait,” he said, and reached into his duffel bag and pulled out a book. “Look,” he said triumphantly. His was a paperback whereas mine was a hardcover and had a different cover design, but the coincidence was unmistakable. The book Aleš held up toward me was entitled Nesmrtnost and was written by none other than Milan Kundera. Laying his volume down on top of mine, Aleš took my face between his two hands and looked into my eyes: “We’re reading the same book,” he whispered. His face was so close to mine that I could feel the heat of his words on my skin. But of all the many things I might have said at that moment, of all the romantic phrases I might have murmured or sighed, this was my response: “Only you’re reading in translation.”
“We’re both reading in translation,” Aleš corrected, reconsidering perhaps whether he wanted to kiss me after all. A distinct coldness had entered his voice, and it seemed possible, that after the long months of waiting, the affair was going to end then and there. Happily, my self-inflicted state of misery came to a rapid end. For not only did Aleš deign to kiss the cultural imperialist who so blithely subsumed the whole of world literature into her own language, but he actually married her a little over a year later. The crowning irony of the story is that after several years living in a foreign land, she – that is me – became a translator from Slovenian into English, and now, more than a decade later, whenever I pick up a novel or a book of poetry in a bookstore, I flip first to the copyright page to see if it has been translated and then to the back pages to find the translator’s bio note. I suppose it goes without saying that there have been many occasions during the intervening years – at dinner parties, poetry readings, international literary festivals – when the conversation has turned, as it so often does, to the subject of America’s cultural dominance. I can always sense the point in the conversation when Aleš can barely resist relating the now immortal anecdote about his American wife and Milan Kundera’s Immortality. Usually, I send a pleading look his way in order to prevent my public embarrassment. But lately, I have been more willing to let the story be told, perhaps because I have come to realize that my faux pas was not entirely a case of individual ignorance, but in fact that I had been influenced by the national and literary traditions in which I had been raised, and by a number of largely unexamined assumptions about translators and translations.
It is, of course, hardly surprising that a country that enjoys the unquestioned cultural and strategic ascendancy that the United States does at the beginning of the twenty-first century would have an ambivalent attitude toward the modest art of translation. After all, translation, whatever else it may be, is above all the act of making the foreign comprehensible and as such is inescapably political. The translation practices of a country as powerful and insular as the United States are bound to reflect the nation’s relationship toward the foreign other. In recent years this relationship has become increasingly fraught, even and especially with America’s traditional cultural and political allies on the European continent. In any event, the general disregard with which translators and translations, and by inference foreign literature, are held in the United States is reflected in virtually every aspect of the publishing industry: the number of translated works appearing on the market each year, the sales figures for non-American literary works that actually do reach the shelves of the nation’s bookstores, the remuneration and copyrights granted to translators, the way translated works are reviewed, and finally the underlying assumptions that affect the very craft of translation.
Lawrence Venuti, in the first chapter of his survey book The Translator’s Invisibility: A history of translation, puts forth a compendium of publishing statistics, contract conditions, and excerpts from book reviews to make a case about the dire state of translation on the American book market. The single most damning statistic is that translated works generally account for somewhere between 2% and 4% of total books published in the United States each year, an astonishingly low number that has changed little over the last several decades. The figures for Great Britain are similarly anemic, suggesting that an indifference to foreign literature may arise not only from political and military superiority, but also from language superiority. English is undeniably the world’s lingua franca; indeed, it is said that today more people speak English as a second language than do as a first. But what cannot be denied is that the countries whose people speak English as their mother tongue and produce the bulk of original English language texts are, as Venuti puts it, “aggressively monolingual.” By way of contrast, the output of translated works in major Western Europeans countries tends to vacillate between about 7% and 14% of total published works, with roughly half of the foreign books published being translations from English. Adding financial injury to insult, American translators cannot command subsistence wages, even if fully employed. All but the most renowned are typically engaged under “work-for-hire” contracts and enjoy little or no copyright protection. In other words, in the unlikely event that a translated work does become a runaway bestseller, the translator will probably not reap the benefit.
Of course, with few exceptions (such as those of Milan Kundera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the odd foreign work to have been selected by Oprah’s reading club – Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader comes to mind), books in translation rarely do hit the American bestseller lists. Indeed, foreign authors generally don’t cross the radar screen of even the more sophisticated American readership until they have won a prestigious international award, and preferably the most prestigious international award: the Nobel Prize for literature. Sometimes, though, even that momentous achievement doesn’t do the trick. When Imre Kertesz, a Hungarian author, won the Nobel in 2002 it was discovered that only two of his books had been published in English translation, and that the more successful of the two, Fateless (Northwestern University Press), had sold a mere 3,500 copies. Northwestern University Press went on to sell 40,000 copies of the book yet, despite this modest success, it recently reduced its literature in translation program. Donna Shear, director of the press, gave a blunt explanation for the downsizing in a recent New York Times article: “It’s expensive, and the sales aren’t there.”

2018-08-21T17:23:21+00:00 May 1st, 2005|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 42|0 Comments