Skip to content
For literary responses to COVID-19 from writers around the world, check out our Voices from the Pandemic series.

Lawrence Venuti Tells us Some More About the Business of Translation

By The Editors

Earlier this month, Words Without Borders featured a piece by Lawrence Venuti on the business side of publishing books in translation. Venuti's article was written for the Frankfurt Book Fair Panel on To Be Translated or Not to Be, the report by Esther Allen, the Ramon Llull Institute and various PEN centers worldwide on the state of translation internationally. He envisions a model that could ensure that a larger, more commercially successful, and more culturally significant sampling of foreign literature makes it into English translation. He also elaborates on how arbitrary sales expectations (such as the infamous 5,000-copy print run that books in translation are expected to sell out) make it hard for any publisher to put out the work of an author writing in another language. Chad Post, over atThree Percent Blog, picked up the thread, adding his own insights into the sticky business of publishing translations. Venuti's insightful piece brought up a lot of questions, and WWB editor Alane Mason posed some of them to him in a follow-up.—Editors

Alane Mason: I enjoyed reading your provocative piece and couldn't help wanting to ask you some questions.

Lawrence Venuti: As I look over your questions, I must say, first of all, that they are among the ones that motivated me to write the essay, and that continue to inform my thinking about translation publishing. A general answer to them is that, when a publisher decides to invest in translation, everything depends on the particular foreign language, literature, and works under consideration. I look at the publishing decisions as strategic, changing over time, never definitive, because they are in fact an interpretation, a changing assessment of what sort of context a publisher thinks might help a work to be appreciated more deeply by readers. "Interpretation" is the key word here because publishers must rely on what they know and what they can come to know by consulting others—writers, translators, scholars, readers. And any interpretation is always provisional, contingent on that information and the changing situation in the receiving culture, the changes in tastes and values that always affect the reception of books, whether original compositions or translations. Above all, I would say that with translations publishing decisions need to be more self-conscious, more calculated, not simply because money is involved, but because foreign texts and cultures are involved, and whatever gets into the receiving culture will create an image for them. Because of this image, because translation patterns form identities for foreign cultures in the minds of readers, publishing as well as translating is laden with a fundamentally ethical responsibility. Publishers should be asking themselves what kind of image their translation of a foreign work will create for the foreign culture where it originated. If they are already asking this question, then there is yet another: To what extent is their thinking about that image merely inflected by current events and trends without some grasp of the foreign cultural traditions that make the work meaningful for readers in the foreign culture?

I do realize that my argument may come off as sheer utopianism. I am asking publishers to alter not only their long-standing practices, but the way they live and breathe as publishers. A likely response is to dismiss my essay as "hooey," as one American editor has in fact called it, while others are probably thinking that Venuti should stick to academic research and leave the economics of publishing to the people who know it best, publishers. Yet I speak from long experience as a translator working with trade publishers of different sizes, not just as a student of translation whose work in the archive has led him to refuse the present situation. The fate of translations in the US and the UK for the past century does suggest that an outright rejection of my argument is reactionary at best, if not anti-intellectual, indicative of an unreflective willingness to conduct business as usual when the need for some kind of change is obvious merely from publishing industry statistics—and from the bottom line. Haven't anglophone publishers lost enough money on the relatively few translations they've published to realize that current practices need to be rethought?

Of course, any call for change can result in misunderstanding, especially when the call is as radical as mine. I am heartened that Chad Post, now in the powerful position of publishing twelve book-length translations a year at the University of Rochester, has taken an interest in my piece. Yet he has reformulated my argument as the idea that "publishers should be doing certain books because someone (who exactly?) has decided that these texts are representative of foreign cultures." This is not my idea, however, although it does reflect one kind of thinking that I would like to question. I expect PUBLISHERS, with the help of translators, to be making the publishing decisions, yet those decisions need to be made in a much more informed way than personal taste, even if that can't be eliminated in any literary judgment. Or why not look at the problem as a matter of a publisher developing his or her taste by learning as much as possible about foreign literary traditions before choosing a foreign work for translation? The ignorance of foreign languages among US publishers is now legendary, but what about their knowledge of foreign cultures (a knowledge that cannot really be separated from language)? If a publisher can find one novel to like in a foreign literature, why not think that same publisher can find another one or three written by different writers at different times? Publishers are currently at the mercy of a selection process that in many cases may well be based on a severely limited or superficial knowledge of foreign cultures. Translations demand that a publisher know more, and translators can help, but they too need to know more about the foreign literatures from which they translate, and that more needs to be figured into their translating.

To be clear about my argument, I don't recommend that a publisher choose texts that can be seen as "representative" of a foreign culture. My point is rather that the publishing must be done strategically, so that a foreign work in translation can achieve a level of intelligibility in terms that are specific to the foreign culture, not merely to the receiving one. How can our reading of foreign works approximate the forms of reading that they receive in their own cultures? Those forms of reading are bound by multiple contexts, linguistic and literary, cultural and social, contexts that gave rise to the works in the first place, but that may also shift with different readerships who bring divergent kinds of knowledge to their reading. The selection of works for translation can never be truly representative, not only because costs dictate that the number of works will always be limited, but because literary traditions are complex, heterogeneous developments that move at different speeds in different cultures. A magazine like Words without Borders—however much I believe in its enormous value—cannot alone provide readers with the sort of context I have in mind. Magazines are ultra selective and ephemeral, they tend to focus on contemporary writing, and they never have the impact of books published over a period of time, even if they can help to bring those books to readers through excerpts and reviews. Perhaps what US publishers should do is to talk a bit to foreign readers who have been reading widely in translated literatures for years, readers who have experienced to varying degrees a more contextualized sense of foreign literatures.

AM: How many works from each language per year would you consider adequate as a context?

Venuti: This is a variable, I'm afraid. There are always two large contexts involved, the foreign one and the receiving one. The latter can help readers appreciate a foreign work too—for instance, with those works that show different cultures addressing similar forms, themes, concerns. Still, I think it's important that not just one contemporary foreign writer be translated at any one time, but that some four or five be, as well as some predecessors that might make the work of later writers more comprehensible and more intriguing. More than one publisher needs to take an interest in the writing of a particular foreign culture at the same moment. Publishers shouldn't look at their colleagues as competitors but as contributors to the construction of cultural patterns from which they themselves as well as their readers can benefit. Patterns of selecting foreign works for translation tend to harden into canons, producing valued yet highly selective representations of foreign literatures. This is one reason why we often see a publisher translate the same foreign writers or the same kinds of foreign writing. The choice of material becomes familiar, and readers who are challenged by the differences of foreign writing in translation might gravitate toward familiarity. Publishers as well as translators need to be vigilant about these possible effects of their decisions because for every foreign work that is admitted many, many others are excluded and the resulting image of a foreign culture can only ever be partial—both incomplete and biased toward the reigning tastes of the translating culture. Any notion of a "representative" selection of foreign works needs to be rigorously examined and resisted.

My recommendations lay out an experiment, no doubt, but one worth trying, I would argue, particularly if their worth is to be judged in practical terms. Just think of all those reading groups that publishers now try to cultivate for their books. As a reading group moves from one book to the next, its choices are usually motivated by the members' personal tastes or interests along with what they've heard in the media about a book. What if the group had a program of exploring a set of books from a foreign literary tradition? Could current publishing trends in the US support that program? If so, for how many languages and cultures?

AM: How many books from each genre, given that a whole spectrum of work creates the cultural context within any given country?

Venuti:. The choice is always a strategic interpretation, based on an assessment of the works to be translated and an understanding of what in the foreign culture could contribute to an understanding of them in translation. Given the cost involved, we can only think of limited cross-sections of the present and the past, or how past works intersect with those in the present. It must also be kept in mind that connections between texts are constructed, never obvious, and readers can only be invited to see what the publisher sees as connecting a set of foreign works. But isn't the point to enable readers to appreciate foreign writing in lots of different ways?

AM: Would you think it is equally important to publish low-brow genre books from other countries together with the "high" lit, or given inevitable limits on resources, how would you choose?

Yes, to the first part of your question. What happens to a genre is always interesting and worth figuring into a publishing decision. Take the current deluge of foreign crime fiction in translation. Many of these books are purely genre novels, some have aspirations to being more serious literary works, and others are experimental in various ways, high-brow projects. This genre is especially fascinating because anglophone readers are likely to regard it as originating in English literary traditions (although there's a concurrent French tradition as well). As a result, what happens to it abroad can make a difference when it comes back home, can signal a cultural difference for anglophone readers (something that is not amiss in a translation, but crucial, insofar as translation traffics in the foreign). And the fact is that readers are appreciating foreign crime novels against the native ones, partly because they know little or nothing about possible traditions of the genre in the foreign cultures—with the exception, perhaps, of a culture like Sweden (viz. Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö).

AM: Are you in effect proposing a "Norton anthology" approach in which, for every language and literary tradition, the most "significant" works from every era are published in a series?

Venuti: I'd want to avoid anything that suggests building a context is simply another scholarly activity. Readers who read for pleasure get part of that pleasure from automatically comparing what they're reading to previous reading experiences. Those experiences always come into play, even if selectively, depending on the current read. We build up reading experiences that shape later ones. Yet anglophone readers can't do this much with foreign literatures because of the dearth of translations (and the relatively small number that remain in print or accessible). One result is fear of foreign writing, fear of not knowing enough about the culture where a foreign work was written in order to be able to appreciate it. This is also partly a fear of translation, I suspect, a fear that translation contaminates, deceives, doesn't give you the source text—it never did!—a misconception about translation that also needs to be addressed somehow. But a reader who has read a few works translated from a foreign literature, past and present, will feel better equipped to brave some newcomer. This is undoubtedly what's happening with the foreign crime fiction, which is selling in unprecedented numbers for translations. Each of Henning Mankell's crime novels have sold more than 100,000 copies in the UK alone (according to Christopher MacLehose, formerly director of the Harvill Press). Readers who wouldn't read a Swedish novel now avidly read all of his and then look for other Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic crime writing. Genre matters enormously here. But the case is also worth the attention of publishers who might want to invest in more literary works.

AM: What about the fact that the "literary context" for almost every author today is supranational? An Italian author is just as likely to be influenced by Jonathan Safran Foer or Elmore Leonard or by a Hollywood movie as by Leonardo Sciascia or Umberto Eco?

Venuti: I would be among the first to admit that a context can take different forms. And you're right about the contemporary situation: because we live in the age of globalized capital, where the rapidity and variety of information flows are unprecedented, the context in which a foreign work is written can be international, a mix of anglophone and various foreign cultures. That's all to the good when thinking about how to contextualize translations. Using genre or theme as a way to select a foreign work is not a bad idea, provided the national context is not entirely lost. National traditions continue to matter for writing, despite the predictions about the demise of the nation state. Just think what the availability of a wider selection of Turkish novelists might do to the appreciation of Orhan Pamuk in English. Yet I wonder if his success has not made it harder for other Turkish novelists to get translated, writers who might not write the kind of narrative that he does, a very international sort of storytelling.

As usual I am trying to work out my ideas in actual translation projects. Because I am interested in broadening the cross-section of foreign writing in English, I have translated popular genres (recently, for example, Melissa P.'s sexy memoir and Massimo Carlotto's hardboiled crime fiction, as well as pop psychology back in the 1980s). But I am now completing a project that tries to compensate for the virtual lack of any translated context in which to read the work: a book by a contemporary Catalan poet, Ernest Farrés, in which each poem is based on a painting by Edward Hopper. Norton published a distinguished 20th-century Catalan poet not too long ago, Salvador Espriu (in Magda Bogin's translation), but other than that it is very, very hard to find the few books of Catalan poetry that have been translated into English, mostly ephemeral editions with small presses. It is no exaggeration to say that Catalan poetry does not exist in English (notwithstanding the University of Chicago's recent publication of a selected Verdaguer, the major 19th-century Catalan poet). So I'm banking on what the anglophone reader will bring to my translation, a familiarity with Hopper's mythic images, perhaps some sense of the English-language poems that have been written about Hopper (by noted American poets like John Hollander, Edward Hirsch, Stephen Dunn—the Hopper authority Gail Levin has compiled a little anthology of these poems). Against this backdrop Ernest Farrés's book is absolutely stunning in its ambitiousness, its wit, and the depth of its interpretations of the visual images. (Or so I think).

It would help this project greatly if a body of Catalan poetry, past and present, were available for anglophone readers of poetry. But I'm trying to work around that absence in various ways—including the language I use in the translations: an American vernacular that draws on words and phrases which Hopper and his wife, the painter Jo Nivison, actually used in their speech and writing, but that at the same time matches the Catalan poet's penchant for colloquialisms, among various other forms of the language (e.g. the standard dialect, jargon from the social and natural sciences, foreign borrowings). I am also compensating for the lack of context by creating a section of endnotes that identify allusions in the Catalan poems and quote comments that Hopper and Nivison made on the paintings and their circumstances. These notes will point up the continuities and disjunctions between the poems and the paintings, highlighting the biographical slant that Farrés himself has taken in his book, his ventriloquism of Hopper. Finding a publisher who will be interested in printing a small number of color reproductions, just some to go along with the poems that can most benefit from the images, is another strategy. It is a rich and complicated project, experimental in a unique sort of way, fitted to the contingencies (notably the lack of Catalan poetry in translation) and relying on the continuing interest in Hopper's work.

Although I've gone on at length, Alane, I may not have answered your questions as directly as you might have wanted. The answers need to be developed in practice, I would say, worked out for individual projects. Which may be the most interesting—and nerve-racking—aspect of publishing translations. Who would want it to be any less interesting? But who can afford today to sit back and judge foreign cultures according to tastes that prevail in the receiving culture? Is that ethical? Does that show respect for foreign cultures?

Published Feb 15, 2008   Copyright 2008 The Editors

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.