I don’t give a lot of importance to translation.
In my life as a reader I’ve always taken for granted that translated books constitute a crucial component of all my reading-related activities. Nor did I ever think that my little corner of the internet, constructed according to no criteria but my tastes, had a cosmopolitan flavor just because I’ve written about Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, Imre Kertész, Mario Vargas Llosa, Václav Havel and Dario Fo. I haven’t done anything except write about the books I like.
But ever since I, an Anglophile Portuguese blogger who writes in English, have joined the blogosphere, I’ve discovered that because I read and write about translated books I’m actually an extraordinary reader. No one has ever told me this, much to my wounded pride, but I’ve surmised it from the uncanny importance translation has amongst book bloggers.
This preoccupation, or obsession, with translations and translated books was one of the first things I immediately noticed when I started chatting about books online several years ago. One of the first forums I joined was Book and Reader, a cozy community but not too adventurous in its tastes. Soon afterwards Stewart invited me to join his then newly-founded World Literature Forum, with a strong focus on foreign literature. This was the first time I realized how Anglo-American readers were poorly read in foreign books and how brave souls were trying to remedy that by promoting and starting discussions on those books. Some time later I was invited to join The Fictional Woods, which is even more aggressively obsessed with foreign literature. It was on those forums that I started observing certain ticks. For instance, I noticed that when discussing a translated an unwritten rule of etiquette dictated that the translator’s name always be mentioned. And until I joined these forums I didn’t realize what massive resistance ordinary readers put up against translated books in the Anglo-American world. I learned all the excuses, the main one being that translations can’t be trusted, that they tarnish the purity of the original. This excuse would be more convincing if thse defenders of purity showed any signs of wanting to learn foreign languages to appreciate the original text in all its virginal immaculateness. But this concern for purity, to the best of my knowledge, is never followed by a willingness to learn foreign languages. It became clear to me that those people were basically saying that they were never going to read foreign literature, because a) translations are untrustworthy, and b) no one is actually going to learn German just to read Franz Kafka. So the alternative is not to read Franz Kafka. However this distrust of translations has also turned translators into heroic figures, praised and adulated, granted interviews, and whose names become inseparable from the writers’: José Saramago? Margaret Jull Costa. The Russians? Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Polish Poetry? It can only be Clare Cavanagh. I’ll be damned if I know who translates Italo Calvino into Portuguese.
I mean no disrespect to these people, who perform an indispensable, critical job and on whom so much of my happiness lies. I just find the combative championing of translations by a small group of readers astonishing. In Portugal no one gives a hoot about it, perhaps incorrectly. A translated book is just a book and the translator is just someone who renders it into a language I can understand. And when two translations co-exist, no one nitpicks about the merits of one and the other. Translated books are such an integral part of the reading habits of the average reader here, few stop to acknowledge that someone actually translates these things, and reading non-Portuguese books is hardly a mark of sophistication or a taste that needs to be encouraged and nurtured by online articles and reading challenges. Like I wrote, we just take it for granted.
Until I became part of online book communities I didn’t realize what a big deal this was. But it’s really amazing the activity around it. Blogs are devoted to them, small publishers focus solely on them, awards are made just to reward them. Someone has even bothered to discover that translations only constitute three percent of all books published in the United States. Even though “that figure obviously represents more books than any one person could read in a year,” it just isn’t enough for them. And I do hope they can improve things. Considering that I read most of my books in English, the more I have to choose from the better.
Also until I became part of this milieu, I didn’t know why people should read translated books, I never gave the matter any thought; I saw it as the inevitable outcome of being a book lover. I used to think everyone read translated books. But I was wrong. Some people resist reading them, I was shocked to discover. But the truth is, after thinking about it, I still don’t know why anyone should read them. Ultimately, readers should only read what they want to read, and this effort to make everyone read obscure Hungarian writers sometimes looks too much like hype and marketing, something I instinctively recoil from in the same way I recoil from watching a movie everyone tells me is the greatest one since Citizen Kane. All this pressure can be so tyrannical and I fear it even runs the risk of alienating readers.
There’s really no intrinsic reason to read translated books. The whole literature of one’s country can keep one busy for a lifetime. Reading them just to have contact with other cultures is a flimsy excuse when one can do that much better through non-fiction. I mean, War and Peace is a sublime novel (I’m only 800 pages into it, but sublime is the only word to describe it), but perhaps a rigorous history book about Napoleon’s campaigns in Russia will shed more light into the matter than the over-wrought and dramatic plots of a novelist
I wonder if translations aren’t essentially more important to other writers. Certainly no translation captures the original, or surpasses it (Borges would disagree), but the alternative, as Milan Kundera puts it, is not to read. So a translation is better than nothing. The truth is, literature would have stagnated without translations. Kundera first read Gargantua and Pantagruel in Czech, before he learned French, and that book has influenced the entirety of his career. If writers waited to learn foreign languages before they read anything, they’d do very little reading, or none at all. No one can be expected to learn Hungarian, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Arab, Chinese, Czech, Spanish in a single lifetime. And no self-respectable writer, aware of his duties, ever embarked on such folly just to keep up with world literature. Writers have better things to do than learn foreign languages – they have books to write, and books to read so they can write books. Laurence Sterne discovered Cervantes thanks to Tobia Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote. Both James Joyce and Virginia Woolf had to settle with Constance Garnett’s crude translations of the Russians, who were incredibly influential on them nonetheless. Franz Kafka read Dickens in Czech, or German. Dostoevsky read Dickens in French. Poe only became important after he was translated into French. The importance of The Arabian Nights in the West is due to its French and English translations. Nietzsche read Dostoevsky in French. George Bernard Shaw read Ibsen thanks to William Archer’s English translations. Gabriel García Márquez read Kafka in Spanish, a translation by Borges no less. And of course, only but a few have read Homer and the ancient Greek playwrights in the original. Indeed The Bible, the most influential book in Western literature, has seldom been read in the original. The King James edition has been the preferred version of English writers for centuries now. If writers didn’t read translations, it’s likely literature would remain stagnant and unbearably dull. Incapable of being challenged, of being influenced, of discovering new ideas and new forms, of stealing from their betters, it’s a mystery how literature would advance at all. Great writers have changed literature by admitting that other countries have better books to read. They borrowed, they copied, they stole the ideas of others for their own purposes, and they didn’t stop to worry about the quality of the translations.
But this is perhaps only of relevance to writers. No reader has to do what they do; no reader has to worry about the history of literature since Homer, nor does he have to know the writer’s influences, the innovations of his foreign peers, nor where literature is heading to. Those who do just have a different level of involvement with literature. I speak for myself. I studied literature, graduated in English literature, and even though I’m out of academia, literature remains too great a part of my personality not to wonder about these questions. I like to emulate my favorite writers, so for me it only makes sense to read translations. I see reading translations as a sign of humility, of not being afraid to say that other countries have better books than mine. I would go mad if I only had Portuguese novels to read, and plays and poetry. (1) I do wish I could say that every Portuguese novel is as good as anything Eça de Queiroz and José Saramago (I’m still on the fence about Lobo Antunes) ever wrote but that’s just not true. A list of national novels can’t satisfy my thirst for greatness, for masterpieces.
Reading translated books is a matter of humility, yes. If reading has taught me anything, it’s that the world is too complex for categories. To decide which countries have the best writers, the best poets, the best essayists is pure chauvinism, and contrary to the central force of good literature, which ridicules sweeping generalizations, obliterates hierarchies, destroys frontiers, confuses rather than clarifies national cultures. Every country has its masterpieces, but as great as Gulliver’s Travels may be, the Irish don’t have The Divine Comedy; and as great as that may be, the Italians don’t have Crime and Punishment; and as great as that may be, the Russians don’t have The Castle; and as great as that may be, the Czechs don’t have Don Quixote; and as great as that may be, the Spaniards don’t have Fictions; and as great as that may be, the Argentineans don’t have Pedro Páramo; and as great as that may be, the Mexicans don’t have The Sound and the Fury; and as great as that may be, Americans don’t have The Book of Disquiet; and as great as that may be, the Portuguese don’t have The Man Without Qualities; and as great as that may be, the Austrians don’t have The Third Policeman.
The reader of translations humbly understands what a privilege it is to gain access into the greatest minds the world has ever produced. Readers who want to read, will read in whatever way they can. Readers who want to complain, hide behind the purity of the original text. I pity the reader who thinks he’s wiser than Laurence Sterne for not reading Cervantes in translation. Nor do I believe a child has ever felt disinclined to read Jules Verne, Emilio Salgari or Tove Jansson to protect their purity. (2) Writers and children know why we read – for pleasure. Everything else is academic. The purity of the text certainly matters in the class room but not in the living room.
Those who believe the original text is purer incur in the sin of arrogance. They think that it better prepares them, that it offers them a special key to understand the genius behind the masterpiece. But masterpieces are masterpieces exactly because they never exhaust their secrets, their meanings, because they cannot be fully comprehended. Reading in the original is to translation what the Hubble telescope is to a pair of binoculars – one can certainly see further and clearer, but only a little bit more. Every masterpiece is a masterpiece because we can never fully understand it. Considering that a century later, Ulysses still baffles readers, it’s obvious English by itself isn’t sufficient to understand it. Only an arrogant reader thinks that access to a foreign language will allow him to completely, definitively apprehend the totality of the meaning of the text, to understand every nuance, every iota of meaning a Cervantes, a Tolstoy, a Dostoevsky, a Mann, a Borges has poured into the text. The humble reader worries only about understanding whatever he can, and is satisfied that a translation, imperfect as it may be, get him closer to that goal than no translation.
There’s no reason then not to read translations. But I also can’t prove why anyone should read translations. For me it’s an article of faith. The common reader is certainly not obliged to read translations, but if he loves books, there’s no reason not to. I can’t explain why reading only American novels is a sin to the reader who enjoys them anymore than I can explain why reading only crime or horror novels is ridiculous to their fans. I just have this suspicion, this feeling, this deep-seated conviction that a reader is a much poorer and incomplete person without them. Translations don’t make demands on us, they don’t cost more or require harder work. They’re well-written, entertaining and quite good. They’ve been the lynchpin of literature since the Romans started translating the Greeks. An activity with such a long history has to be important.
But it’s the reader who has to decide why.
1) I jest, obviously: Portuguese poetry is the best in the world, and anyone who wastes his time reading John Ashbery, Seamus Heaney, Adam Zagajewski, and James Merrill instead of learning the language of Camões is a fool. A damned fool!
2) Do children still read these books nowadays?