TO BE TRANSLATED OR NOT TO BE (pdf) is a new report on the “international situation of literary translation” produced by International PEN and the Institut Ramon LLull (Barcelona). [I first saw mention of this report at the Literary Salon and PEN America]

The report starts with a wonderful and short forward by Paul Auster:

“Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.”

I’ve not yet read the complete, sixty-plus page report. It’s late and I want to go to bed but there are some aspects I wanted to highlight. Early in the report is a section titled English as an Invasive Species. That’s a catchy line that should get the attention of anyone who can read that sentence. The report presents a good discussion on the state of literary translation…a rather depressing read for those of us who care about language and world literature.

Why care about language? The report (p21) says it quite well: “each language embodies a human community’s unique perception and experience of the world, all of it lost forever when the language is lost.”

Case Study on Literary Translation in Argentina

I was surprised and heartened to see that Argentina was included as one of six countries closely examined for its practices in literary translations. (An aside: my friends from Barcelona will be proud to see that Catalonia also was selected as one of those countries. Well, the report was authored by institute in Barcelona and the report even goes so far as to state that Catalonia is a “nation without a state”). Okay, back to Argentina.

The study, written by Gabriela Adamo, starts by linking the rise of publishing in Buenos Aires (as well as Mexico City) with the relocation of Spain’s best publishers to Latin America during the Franco dictatorship. Many major American, English, and French writers were translated first in Latin America, before becoming available in Spain…Faulkner, Henry James, Virginia Woolf.

Then came the ruin of local publishing in Latin America by military dictatorships and economic crises and the shift back to Spain. Essentially, Spanish-language publishing in the world today is controlled by large publishing companies based in Spain.

For works to be translated into English, eyes often turn to publishers and critics in Spain to identify potential authors and titles: “It is not surprising, then, to note how desperate Latin-American writers are to see their works published in Spain, which they regard as the only real gateway into the international world… …a great number of people in the international publishing world still see [Latin America] as the big backyard of Spain.”

The Presence Behind the Book

I knew that book designers are horribly paid and poorly treated by Argentine publishers, but evidently the same is true for the people who actually translate the literature into Spanish.

As far as Argentine writers being translated into other languages, it’s most likely to be French, Portuguese (Brazil), German, or Italian. Getting translated into English is very difficult. This is a publishing problem. Personally, I’m continually astounded at the quantity and range of writing I’m coming across by Argentine and other Latin American writers.

The report indicates that the problem is largely due to the lack of foreign rights departments among Latin American publishers, but that there are a couple of initiatives aimed at promoting Argentine writers to foreign publishers. In another post, I’m going to have some further thoughts on this topic.

The case study ends with the assertion that there are many promising younger writers in Argentina, along with this suggestion: “The best way to confirm this is to walk around the always abundant Buenos Aires bookshops.”