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Translation and Publishing Roundtable: Translated Literature, a Cottage Industry?

By Anne Ishii

For the publishing panelists of this roundtable, the value of a translator was invariably in his/her command of the English language and not necessarily just their fluency in the language they were translating from. On top of which, a good translator "captured the original voice," which again, is different from simply being able to read a foreign language. Jennifer Kronovet of Circumfrence magazine reminded us that much of the best translated poetry is done by American poets who have encountered foreign verse on their own, taking the liberty of translating it for the sake of the world of poetry, despite meager rewards. As various adages will claim, like is as like does.

All of the various editors also agreed that translations sometimes had to risk questionable departures from the original content for the sake of the American reader, and in certain cases the end product was an entirely different version—ten pages shorter, fewer chapters, a more polished denouement, just…better.

But mind you, while the changes are made for the American reader, it was also readily acknowledged that this American reader of translated literature was a rare beast. In fact, all of the editors more or less admitted to being more excited about the difficulty of a text than they were concerned with the book's commercial success. They are cognizant of a trend not exclusive to translations—people just aren't reading "quality literature" anymore, so they know better than to expect the global trend towards "light fiction" to turn on its heel just because they are in love with the mosaic-pastiche-cum-memoir-that-makes-Barthelme-look-like-a-troglodyte.

For that matter, when they go to the Frankfurt Book Fair, Jill Schoolman (Archipelago) doesn't want to hear about such and such German superstar, Chad Post (U. Rochester) doesn't want to hear about the French Bridget Jones's Diary, and the reviewer Idra Novey is tired of hearing about "bored thirty-something men" of any provenance. In sum, translating quality literature from foreign languages into the American marketplace is not for the faint or heart, nor to buoy up anyone's bottom line. It is a labor of love, whose end product is a paean to something bigger than simple polylingualism, it is a commitment to ars translatica— it is the work of a critic, philosopher, aficionado, artist and a fan, all rolled into one very poor person.

Editors know and appreciate this process, and at the roundtable, they reminded potential translators-for-hire that the best way into their hearts is demonstrating familiarity with their previous publications. Most translators will say that's perfunctory, and some of them in the audience said as much. No one knows the translation market like translators. Like I said before, like is as…

But if the work of translation is so precious, and the selling of high literature so difficult…if this craft is so elusive…I'm forced to wonder: a. who is reading these books, b. how are publishers finding them, and c. can high literature ever be popular without giving up its prestige?

I suspect it's ok with the panelists and for most of the audience that the people reading poetry are poets, and the people reading translations are translators. A cottage industry may even be the only avenue for real evolution in the DNA of this art. But here's the most important implication to be drawn from recognizing this is a cottage industry: the fact that so many translators who can presumably read the foreign language from which the translation has been derived, choose to read English translations and appreciate this elusive craft, proves translation is an art in and of itself.

Published Apr 8, 2008   Copyright 2008 Anne Ishii

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