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why translation matters

Friday 9 July, 2010

I came across this article in Foreign Policy magazine A New Great Wall by Edith Grossman, who wrote a book entitled Why Translation Matters.  She raises some interesting issues.   Unfortunately, she confirms many reflections of American parochialism.  My concern is that English-speaking publishers are contributing to this parochialism by filtering out great literature by non-English writers.

Americans are lazy enough when it comes to foreign languages, so to expect them/us to learn another language & experience the best writers in their native tongues is probably too much to ask.  For that reason, especially with the shrinking of the world, I’d expect forward thinking editors to be scouring the Earth for new writers in other languages who have something to say.  Apparently this is not the case.  True to English-speaking form, British & American publishing houses are turning their backs on ever-more accessible foreign writers.  It’s particularly distressing that these gatekeepers are not opening up these opportunities, but rather are willfully slamming these doors shut.  We are being denied opportunities to learn about the rest of the world even in our our language.

When learning German @ Thunderbird, we were required to read a book in German & write a book report in German about it.  I read “The Corporal from Köpenick,” a story which provided great insights into the German character.  The protagonist got stuck in the conundrum where he couldn’t get a work permit without a residence permit, so he dressed up like a Corporal & took over city hall.  This story depicted German tendency towards bureaucracy & willingness to fall in behind a strong “leader.”  It was written in the 1880’s, so it confirms that these traits are deeply-seated in German culture.  When I visited East Berlin before the wall fell, I bought a book in English entitled “A History of the United States” which depicted the American civil war as the rising up of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie, a decidedly communistic revision of our history, which enabled me to learn more about America from another’s point of view.   They must have intentionally planted this book for English-speakers, because although it agreed with the East German view of the world, it certainly wasn’t targeted @ Germans.  There is great value in reading foreign authors, whether in their language or translated into our own.

Current trends in media indicate that this head-in-the-sand approach will continue & exacerbate the death spiral in hard-bound literature.  My impression of young people today is that they are exchanging information across borders at a rate most adults have never experienced, & are thus interested & curious about other cultures to the same degree.  I think what readers are interested in is interesting stories, wherever they are written or set.  To ignore good stories from other countries in other languages is closing off prime opportunities to learn about the rest of the world.

From a business perspective, I fully understand that translation can be expensive & despite technical innovation, is not getting any cheaper because it’s still a service which requires human eyes & ears, & is not yet a reliable computer-oriented task.  On the other hand, again from a business perspective, perhaps this spells a great business opportunity, to seek out great writers in foreign languages & have their works translated & published.  I hope some investor goes for it.

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