A few months into the Iraq War, three American women founded a magazine called Words Without Borders. They hoped to create “an antidote to xenophobia and nationalism” by publishing foreign literature in translation. To that end, they wanted to share the voices of contemporary writers from the countries President George W. Bush had recently called the “axis of evil” — Iran, Iraq and North Korea — for English-language readers.
North Korea, a “completely closed” country, was the trickiest to comb for fiction, recalled Samantha Schnee, a translator of Spanish literature, who began the magazine with Alane Mason, an editor at Norton, and Dedi Felman, an editor at Oxford University Press.“The only writing we could get was writing from the North Koreans’ own literary journals, which they had in their New York office at the United Nations.” An intern was dispatched to the United Nations for reconnaissance. “She camped outside their office for two days,” Schnee said. “Finally, someone came out and said, ‘What do you want?’ And she said, ‘I just want your literary magazines.’ ” The North Koreans handed them over.
Since 2003, Words Without Borders has published literary translations online by more than 2,200 writers from 134 countries. Another translation publisher, Archipelago Books, opened that year in Brooklyn. More independent presses devoted to international literature followed: Europa Editions, in 2005; Open Letter Books, in 2008; New Vessel Press, in 2012; and a dozen others. Today, literary translation, once the province of monuments of the past, guarded by eminent sages, has leaped from dusty library stacks into the contemporary mainstream: Only last Sunday, a novel from Italy, “My Brilliant Friend,” written by Elena Ferrante this decade and translated into English by Ann Goldstein within a year of its emergence, premiered on HBO as a lustrous, fully realized television miniseries. Propelling the remarkable transformation of this literary landscape? Among other factors, Sept. 11 and its aftermath, with a powerful boost from digital technology. Translation wasn’t just for Tolstoy and Goethe anymore. New wars disturbed the peace.
To paraphrase Tolstoy — or his translator Constance Garnett — in “Anna Karenina,” all happy decades are alike, but perhaps every unhappy decade is unhappy in its own way. The peaceful cocoon of the final three decades of the 20th century had not conditioned American readers to look beyond U.S. borders for literary stimulation. Apart from the Iran hostage crisis and the blip of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s were mostly harmonious, inward-looking decades.
Then came 2001, and everything changed. The 9/11 attacks disrupted complacency and turned the American gaze outward.
Historically, when Americans thought of foreign literature, what came to mind, with important exceptions (Gabriel García Márquez, Marguerite Duras), were classics from past centuries written by venerated authors like Virgil, Dante, Cervantes and Gogol. Those great books still matter: Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s “Odyssey” was hailed as a groundbreaking triumph by the New Yorker, the Guardian and NPR. But Homer’s fan following cannot compete with the ecstatic reaction of the reading public to Don Bartlett’s translation of “My Struggle,” the six-volume saga by the living Norwegian bard Karl Ove Knausgaard, who draws throngs to book events in Oslo, New York, London and Berlin.
In the two disharmonious decades of the 21st century, American society has grown less homogeneous and more interactive. Americans have expanded their engagement with other cultures. Smartphones and social media accompanied the war against terrorism, and the distance between Over Here and Over There shrank. Chad Post, the founder of Open Letter and the creator of the translation blog Three Percent (the name comes from an old statistic for the percentage of all literary books published in the United States in a given year that are translations), suggests that 9/11 sparked “sudden interest in foreign countries, and new awareness of the general connectedness of the world.” But even if that interest and awareness began with the Middle East, it quickly spread to Central America, South America, China, Europe and Japan. The houses that sought out foreign titles were the advance guard of a quiet revolution in publishing, which has been attended by new academic programs, certificates and degrees that are equipping the next generation of translators to bring foreign literature to readers who find it “enticing,” as Post puts it.
The most recent proof of this enticement came when “My Brilliant Friend,” the first volume in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, jumped to television. The producers chose to cast Italian actors and use subtitles, not worrying that this choice might discourage English speakers. The actors spoke in the rich, twisty dialects of the working-class Naples neighborhoods that the novel’s characters inhabit. The show’s creators knew that the American readers who had made this book a No. 1 bestseller here wanted the series to authentically relay the novel’s mood and setting. They understood that, in 2018, when a story from abroad is well enough imagined and well enough told, it can find an American audience, even a large one. Among the host of popular foreign fictions, translated for the first time, that have arrived on American shores to popular or critical acclaim in this era are “Austerlitz” (German), “The Savage Detectives” (Spanish), “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” (Swedish), “Suite Française” (French), “1Q84” (Japanese) and newly discovered stories by Clarice Lispector (Portuguese).
Additional proof of the increasing prominence of foreign literature in American letters came last week in New York, when the National Book Foundation added a prize for translated literature to the National Book Awards roster — the first new prize category in more than two decades. There are other translation prizes, here and abroad. Britain’s Man Booker created its own variant, the international prize, in 2004, and in 2008, Open Letter created a best translated book award. But for the National Book Awards to single out this genre signaled a new emphasis.
When the prizes were formed, in 1950, they had a particularly American focus befitting their name; as a sign of the initial patriotic impulse, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt handed out the plaques on the first awards night. But Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation who presided over the restoration of the translation category (a previous, narrower incarnation existed between 1967 and 1983), says the mission has changed. “As citizens of the world, we share this planet,” she says. “We both believe and hope that American readers are reading books from around the world.” This year’s victor was “The Emissary” a wild and small 2014 dystopian novel by Yoko Tawada set in a future Japan in which the elderly are strong and the young feeble. Margaret Mitsutani, the translator, divided the prize with the author.
The literature that a country promotes is a well-recognized form of soft diplomacy; it extends cultural values and accomplishments. French, German, Spanish and even Russian governmental organizations publicly embrace this mission. Until recently, the official American approach has been less visible. Still, since 1981, the National Endowment for the Arts has supported foreign literary outreach by offering grants to translators and the presses that publish their work. Translation is an expensive and underfunded proposition; the work is skilled, laborious and time-consuming, and publishers must pay both for the original book and for the translator’s efforts. So far the NEA has given nearly 500 fellowships to more than 400 translators, representing 69 languages and 83 countries. In 2003, it was a substantial grant from the NEA that made Words Without Borders possible.
This year, about 600 volumes of literature and poetry in translation were published in the United States. That’s a small number — about 4 percent of all literary books produced annually by American presses. But it’s nearly twice as many as were published a decade ago, and a slightly bigger piece of the publishing pie, up from less than 3 percent in 1999. According to Michael Reynolds, the New York editor in chief of Europa, which publishes Ferrante, translated books are “punching over their weight most of the time.” They are gaining disproportionate review coverage and winning prime placement on booksellers’ lists and in readers’ hearts.
That said, not every book that originates overseas deserves transplanting; foreign authors are just as guilty of writing “minor fiction” or narrow polemic as American authors; and editors, translators and readers passionately disagree not only about which foreign writing deserves American attention, but what makes a translation worth reading. Words Without Borders, when it published its first North Korean translations in September 2003, admitted dismay at the “propagandistic mission” it found in the stories it published (a sample, from Kim Hong-ik’s “He’s Alive”: “she heard solemn music, reverberating all around. It was ‘The Song of General Kim Il Sung,’ a tune of such courage and excitement that it always filled her with joy.”) Deciding which books to back is a political choice, as well as a matter of taste. Publishers whose pet offerings do not get nominated for prizes often complain that the judges stumbled. Winners frequently come under attack for their translation style — too clunkily faithful to the original, too glibly fluent in the American idiom. Not every book that crosses over will meet a warm reception, and not every book should. Translators recognize that their profession is a battlefield.
Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American novelist, recently began translating from Italian. One of her translations, Domenico Starnone’s 2016 book “Trick,” made the shortlist for the new National Book Award. In the introduction, she deprecated her contribution modestly and prudently, anticipating quibblers. “My version of ‘Trick,’ the first in English, is just one of many that might have been,” she wrote. Translation, she added, “is an act of doubling and converting, and the resulting transformation is precarious, debatable even in its final form.” In this volatile, hyper-communicative age, translating translation itself may be the highest wall of all.
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