SEPTEMBER 18, 2018
WE KNOW HOW those who practice, publish, and promote literary translation think of ourselves: some incredibly tiny fraction of books published in the United States are literary translations (surely far, far less than the “three percent” statistic we often cite), and they are mostly done by small indies whose resources are dwarfed by what a major commercial publisher would spend on any mid-list American author. In spite of that, we persist, because translation is a life-enriching opportunity to enter a community of peers and realize a true literary vocation. As we never get tired of saying, translation is the closest form of reading, and it gives you all the thrills of creativity without the terror of the blank page. Not only that, but we in the translation scene are at the vanguard of those who are rejuvenating the English language and the American imagination, and our work will serve poets and politicians alike for years and years to come.
That’s a largely generalized but probably not overly cartoonish summary of prevailing sentiments in the translation community — but what does the rest of the American literary field think of translation? What do those authors who do not have any strong interest in, affinity for, or history with translation think about it as a practice, and (dare I say) an art form?
Answers of a sort are provided in Crossing Borders, a collection of essays on literary translation as well as short stories that prominently feature the practice. Let’s deal with the fiction first. Its authors range from celebrated, like Joyce Carol Oates and Lydia Davis, to the lesser known. (Notably, just one of the creative writers here is a foreigner that has been translated into English.) Although a few of these writers have translated, most of the fiction contributors have no real experience with the practice.
What emerges in the fictional contributions to Crossing Borders is a vision of the English-language translator as an individual who engages with a foreignness that is largely defined by places over which the US psyche experiences guilt. That is, by places in which we’ve fought hot wars or have damaged in our cultural battles, mostly in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. A number of these stories revolve around an interpreter who makes communication possible either with inhabitants of some vague Eastern European locations or with traumatized immigrants from these regions to the United States. Other fictional translators broker relationships between the Anglosphere and Southeast Asian nations like Cambodia that have been the field of battle in the United States’s postcolonial wars. In the stories, the translator/interpreter figures are generally of two kinds: they either facilitate communications for governmental interests abroad or they’re American loners, self-employed or finding a home of sorts in the academy.
This is all to say that the composite picture of the field that emerges in Crossing Borders is not one that I think many in literary translation would find accurate. While it is of course true that our nation’s foreign policy, past and present, often impinges on which regions of the world Americans find literarily fascinating, that dynamic is changing. Many other factors now come into play. Chief among them are the subsidies provided by foreign governments in an ever-expanding game of cultural imperialism. International literary festivals and prizes have become so powerful as to have rocketed a nation like South Korea to the center of the translation world in under a decade — with the help of the more quotidian practice of government bureaucrats arranging editor tours and doling out funds. And as the immense success of authors like the Finnish Sofi Oksanen, Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Italian Elena Ferrante demonstrate, the forces of international media, conglomerated publishing, and national bookselling now have very much to say about what foreign people and places occupy the interest of American readers.
Nor are the book’s fictional depictions of literary translators especially flattering. The protagonists come off as sad, occasionally weird individuals without much going on, the kind of people who are incapable of understanding why they’re so socially maladroit. While it’s definitely true that translation tends to be done by those with an eccentric and independent bent to their personalities, the translators I know have a diverse array of interests and large and active social communities. They have lots of friends and professional peers, are often raising families, and would be at home among virtually any group of young professionals. I don’t see them as the awkward, isolated misfits that predominate in Crossing Borders — they’re fun-loving, charismatic, sophisticated, and plain cool. Perhaps the people we see in Crossing Borders are more typical of the translation community as it existed 30 to 40 years ago.
What of the literary textures of these stories, the way they bring to life exotic locales and languages? Tellingly, the only piece of fiction that seemed to make deep and integrated use of the particular history behind its setting was Svetlana Velmar-Janković’s “Sima Street,” which is also the only story in this collection that is translated from a foreign language into English. Joyce Carol Oates’s “The Translation” is also strong; there is a degree of emotional depth to its lead characters, and something real is at stake. But for the most part the stories here felt quite domestic — recognizably American people and arcs transplanted to a foreign location, with a little local color but not much more to set them apart.
One other exception here is Lydia Davis’s contribution, which is characteristically hybrid in its form (one could easily argue for its inclusion as an essay). Posed as a lesson in the French language, it elegantly inculcates in the reader an intense desire to know what happened to “le fermier” — we suspect it may have something to do with the text’s final words, “le meutre” (also its title). In its coy whimsicality and its subversive deployment of linguistic principles, it becomes — in just over six pages — a text that can easily support many readings and ideas. I don’t know exactly where it takes place, but it could be France (there’s something undeniably French to it), or maybe a Calvinoesque invisible France of Davis’s imagination. Similarly, Norman Lavers’s contribution — focusing on a Southeast Asian translator who is essentially rewriting Hamlet and transforming its genre in order to make it comprehensible to her culture — while perhaps not entirely successful as a story, has the benefit of entwining translation more deeply with its protagonist’s psychology and locale, while also thinking about the practice in more interesting ways.
If the fiction in Crossing Borders strikes this reader as a somewhat inaccurate representation of the discipline, the essays are pleasingly different. All written by veteran translators who are greatly esteemed in their field, they present a broad range of translation’s possibilities. The contribution of the late Chana Bloch explores the immense joys and challenges that come with rendering biblical writing, which is among the most formally difficult — and highly scrutinized — translation work available. Primo Levi’s short piece offers poetic commonplaces about the practice; although they won’t break new ground for those who know the field, they are eloquent and rousing. The essay from late Oulipian Harry Mathews strikes a defiant note by inviting translators to drag the art away from ideas of fidelity toward which a translator like Bloch strives; Mathews instead offers a vision of translation as a creative practice that hews closer to what one might call “equivalences” — something like the “translation” that happens when a book becomes a movie. And Michael Scammell’s chronicle of working with the legendarily irascible Vladimir Nabokov as a young man is a beautifully written, thickly descriptive look at the real life of a translator.
That said, there is something dated about the essays too. One can’t help but wonder what Crossing Borders might have looked like with younger, more international names gracing its table of contents. The most interesting people in translation are often young, and they aren’t all American. In recent years, many people under 40 — some even under 30 — have been directly responsible for translating, publishing, and championing authors who have taken the world’s most prestigious literary prizes. And with many of the world’s great writers now regularly touring, and living in, the United States — to say nothing of the translators who regularly spend years abroad — the world literary community is more tightly knit than ever. Any book that aspires to take stock of what is happening in translation right now should reflect these realities in its pages. A much more broadly based and up-to-date version of this collection could make a wonderful contribution to the field of literary translation. I’d love to see Crossing Borders 2.0.
Veronica Scott Esposito is the author of four books, including The Doubles and The Surrender. Her writing has appeared in publications including The New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, The White Review, and Music & Literature. She is a contributing editor with BOMB magazine, a senior editor at Two Lines Press, and edits The Quarterly Conversation, a journal of book reviews and essays.