Stephen Henighan: The Fall of Translation

On October 27, 2011 , writer Clark Blaise visited  the MacDonald-Stewart Art Gallery in Guelph, Ontario. As a nomadic bicultural author who has spent much of his life translating himself across boundaries (and who is also published by Biblioasis), Blaise provided an apt catalyst for talking about translation, and the Biblioasis International Translation Series.  Here's the talk I delivered at the time.

                                            THE FALL OF TRANSLATION/ Stephen Henighan

Clark Blaise’s visit to Guelph is an ideal opportunity to talk about translation. There are at least two good reasons for this. The first is that although the translator’s word-by-word struggle is with the different ways in which languages carve up reality, the ultimate goal of literary translation is to carry one culture across a border while balancing it on your shoulders in a way that makes it visible to the culture on the other side of the frontier.   This is exactly what Clark Blaise does in  short stories such as “North,” “I’m Dreaming of Rocket Richard,” and dozens of others; one of the stories in his book Resident Alien is even called “Translation.”  Blaise’s short stories are full of characters who translate their names from Boisvert to Greenwood –  or from Blais to Blaise.
The second reason to talk about translation today is that Mr. Blaise’s publisher, Biblioasis, is the home of the Biblioasis International Translation Series.
In 2006 Dan Wells asked me to help him set up and run a series of literary translations with an international flavour. Nobody had ever made a sustained attempt at doing anything like this in Canada.  Canadians were content to let New York and London and a few university presses in the U.S.  decide what got translated into English; to set the tone, the references and the language. This passivity was reinforced by the Canada Council. Where both the United Kingdom and the United States have granting agencies that fund incoming translations, the Canada Council funds English-French or French-English translations within Canada, but does not fund Canadian translations of writers from other countries. Nor does the publisher receive his usual grant to support book publication if the book’s author is not Canadian. In the absence of support for either translation or publication, and given the need to purchase English-language rights to the work from hard-nosed  literary agents in Frankfurt, the cost of publishing translations in Canada is inordinately high. It could be lowered by judicious policy making.  Yet in our desire to strengthen our culture, we have forgotten that in an era of accelerated globalization, strength flows not only from bolstering that which is ours, but also  from forging our own interpretations of the world. Committed to the idea that translations must come from the margins of linguistic cultures as well as from the power centres, the Biblioasis International Translation Series is dedicated to publishing world literature in English in Canada. We believe that translations are the lifeblood of literature, that a language that is not in touch with other linguistic traditions loses its creative vitality, and that the worldwide spread of English makes translation more urgent now than ever before. 
Above all, we were aware that there was a lot out there to translate because English is the most insular language in the world. From my own trans-linguistic reading, I was familiar with quantities of good writers whose works were available in half-a-dozen or more languages, yet not in English. Only Arabic-speaking cultures publish fewer translations than Anglophone societies, and the Arabs at least have the excuse that most of their citizens are poor and speak dialects as their mother tongues, which makes it difficult or impossible, without specialized training, for them to read the Classical Arabic in which books are published. English-speaking societies have no excuse for their disdain of the rest of the world’s literature. Many English-speaking countries are among the world’s most prosperous, most of our populations are reasonably well educated, and our literary language is only a heartbeat away from that spoken on the street.  Unfortunately, as the inheritors of the two empires that have dominated the world for the last two hundred years –Great Britain and the United States– speakers of English are infected with the bizarre notion, which prevails nowhere else on earth, that their mother tongue is all they need to know to understand the world.  Commentators invariably cite economics as the culprit for the paucity of translations in English, yet those same commentators tell us that in English-speaking countries economics is based on the market. If the market for translations in English is weak, this suggests the presence of certain innate characteristics in English-speaking culture, one of which is an ingrained disdain of foreigners and what passes for their culture.
The fact that Canada has no claim to world-dominating imperial grandeur, is an officially bilingual nation, and houses most of its population in a chain of large cities inhabited by immigrants who came here speaking languages other than English or French, has not exempted us from the prejudices characteristic of our linguistic culture. Yet even  divergences from the imperial model may offer us an opportunity to evolve away from imperial presumption, particularly since one of the great English-speaking empires began to fracture at the end of the Second World War and the other is in the process of falling apart as we speak. Translation, in addition to being a boost to our aesthetics and a tonic for our literary language, is part of the enterprise of liberating Canadian culture  from the imperial presumptions of our colonized past and present, and lending it the latitude to confront its own inherent strangeness, which we are so often afraid to acknowledge or articulate.
As an historical phenomenon, the rise of the translator coincided with the decline of the bilingual or trilingual reader. In the 19th century, English readers were fond of allowing themselves to be corrupted by naughty French literature, whether it was Gustave Flaubert describing in loving detail the syphilitic chancres he had acquired in an Egyptian brothel, Émile Zola narrating the volupté of a man and a woman in bed together (unthinkable in an English or American 19th-century novel) or J.K. Huysmans or Remy de Gourmont praising decadence and perversion. By definition, French literature was read in French; this was part of its transgressive appeal. In the 20th century, as the bourgeoisie lost the habit of reading in other languages, translators became trend-setters. The vogue, in the English-language world, for Russian literature in the 1930s and 1940s, French existentialism in the 1950s and 1960s, and Latin American novels in the 1970s and 1980s, all depended on the prowess of translators.

But the end of the Cold War and the onset of accelerated globalization have relegated translation to the back alleys of literature.  In the last fifteen years the English-speaking world has turned its back on literatures written in other languages. Translation is  an imperfect filter for literature; often it is a downright distortion. But when translation declines, literatures stagnate. Constance Garnett’s translations, even though they are now recognized as clumsy and deficient,  brought Russian literature into the literate English-speaking consciousness in the early 20th century.  Modernist prose benefited from this awareness.  “I want to discuss Form, having been reading Turgenev,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary on August 16, 1933. Across the English Channel, Woolf’s near-contemporary André Gide devoted an entire book to trying to prove that Dostoevsky was a greater writer than Tolstoy. It is possible that early French translations of Russian literature were no more elegant or accurate than those of Garnett, but their publication reshaped literary debate.
The focus of literary translation changes with the political climate.  Translations of Russian literature made the leap across the Atlantic in the early 1940s as the result of a U.S. government “amity program” that subsidized cultural exchange with Washington’s Second World War ally, the Soviet Union. After 1945, the new ally was Japan: Washington funded the study of Japanese language and literature in U.S. universities. This stimulated the wide availability of translations of novels by Yukio Mishima, Yasunari Kawabata and Junichiro Tanizaki.  These translations established a taste for Japanese fiction among readers of English, paving the way for the success in English translation of later writers such as Haruki Murakami and Banana Yoshimoto. Political allegiances determined that we gained access to a broad spectrum of Japanese fiction but learned little of Chinese literature.

During the Cold War,  series such as Writers from the Other Europe, edited for Penguin Books by Philip Roth, made us less provincial by ensuring that we could find novels by George Konrád, Bruno Schulz and Tadeusz Konwicki in our bookstores.  The political imperative guaranteed that every word by the Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn appeared in English, and assisted the careers of the Czech dissident writers Milan Kundera and Ivan Klíma.  Conversely, the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu’s policy of cultivating good relations with the West must take some of the blame for the fact that the great Romanian novelist Marin Preda was excluded from this wave of translation: his novels remain unavailable in English to this day.   The campus counterpoint to the promotion of dissident work from Eastern Europe took the form of  acclaim for  translations of Spanish American fiction.  Personally, I hold those  little shiny little Avon paperbacks with the lush paintings on the covers responsible for driving me to master Spanish.  The most popular edition of the emblematic Spanish American novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, appeared in the Avon series,  as did other pivotal works, such as Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch and Vargas Llosa’s The Green House. Avon branched out into classics by older writers, such as the Cuban Alejo Carpentier, and began the task of remedying our ignorance of the riches of Brazilian literature. 

The end of the Cold War brought this boom period for translation to a close. The widespread misconception that globalization means that the whole world speaks English has rendered translated fiction suspect.  Where Avon used to flaunt the translating prowess of Gregory Rabassa or Thomas Colchie, publishers now try to keep the translator’s name off the cover out of a belief that readers are reluctant to buy books that were not written in English.  Every day we hear of the importance of China, yet we still know little about its literature. Brazil,  India and contemporary Arabic writing remain enigmas. Now that Central and Eastern Europe no longer supply us with  politically useful dissidents, we have ceased to translate the region’s literature. No longer do English-Canadian undergraduates regard translations of Marie-Claire Blais novels as vital reading, as many did in the 1970s, nor do young English-speaking readers elsewhere receive substantial exposure to current French-language fiction from Europe, Africa or the Caribbean. 

Even Spanish American writers, whose culture increasingly overlaps with that of the United States, struggle to find an outlet in English.  Roberto Bolaño may be popular today, but  translations of his work into English began to appear far later than those into French, Italian or German. And Bolaño is the only major Latin American writer to have broken through into the English market since the 1980s.    In 2004 I watched the Miami-based Peruvian novelist and star talk-show host Jaime Bayly struggle with his frustrations during an onstage interview when a reader asked where she could find translations of his best-selling novels for her English-speaking friends.  “I do not know why I am not translated into English,” Bayly said.

At a time when everyone is asking why English-language fiction has stalled, why fewer readers buy novels, part of the answer must lie in the decline of translation. Alert readers of Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese and other languages participate in an international aesthetic debate; readers and writers of English, condemned to silence by insular fantasies of global relevance, are missing out on the next wave of literature.  One of the great opportunities offered to Canadians  by the shifting cultural dynamics of the present is that of recognizing that we never have been such a thoroughly Anglified country in our institutional culture as either Great Britain or the United States.  By diluting the grip of Englishness, we can plumb our marginalization, our hybridity, our strangeness – and, by extension, our openness to translation.
Part of Canada’s strangeness is the presence in our society of significant writers whose language of expression is neither English nor French. We published a novel by one of these writers, Hans Eichner, who wrote in German in Rockwood, Ontario,  as the third title in the Biblioasis International Translation Series.  We are working to include more Canadian writers who write in neither English nor French. In addition to Eichner, and to writers from Quebec, by the end of 2012 Biblioasis will have published significant works by major literary figures from Poland, Angola, El Salvador, Romania, Mexico, Argentina and Mozambique. No other publisher in Canada can claim anything like this kind of international reach; yet, frustratingly, we have yet to encounter our audience. Our translations do not get reviewed in Canada. Here, as elsewhere, newspaper reviewing culture is in decline and online reviews have failed to pick up the slack; the scant review space for literature that remains is divided between English-Canadian works and American and British writers with international reputations. Some of our  books, particularly the Latin American ones, have more of a natural market in the United States, yet, even though Biblioasis now has first-rate U.S. distribution through Consortium, the company’s profile south of the border is not yet big enough to muscle those books into the American market. Many of the writers we publish are brisk sellers not only in their own languages, but in other translations. The English-speaking world, though, remains impervious.  The plight of literature in translation epitomizes the quandary of all literature: the imperative to knock on the door of the dormant bourgoisie in the hope of rousing the residents into   a more acute cultural awareness that will make them profoundly unhappy, but far, far more alert.