The recognition of the right of freedom to choose and the desire for instant self-gratification are as active in readers’ consciousnesses as they are in other consumers. We all know what we want, and the books we want to read, for we want nothing else, we want to read them now. And we demand them in a language we understand, for books aren’t useful otherwise. Literature has an irritating in-built flaw that no one can iron out by sending it back to the drawing board: most books, numbers will prove, were written in languages readers don’t know. Unlike ice cream or a pair of pants, commodities that don’t require a special skill set to enjoy or use, books demand of the reader that he be familiar with the language it was written, or printed, in; but no matter how much one is proficient in polyglotism, mastering the 6000 languages of the world is an impossible feat. Translators have mitigated our linguistic ignorance over the centuries, and nothing we can do or say can ever fully repay them for their hard and unprofitable work. Buying their translations certainly demonstrates our appreciation, but there’s a radiance about the spiritual satisfaction of reading that one book we longed for that somehow doesn’t feel right to think it can be easily repaid with crude money. Those amongst us who take the pleasure of reading seriously know that the memories retained from reading a beloved book, fond memories that will accompany us for the rest of our lives, can’t be repaid.
Translators for me are as invisible but important as the fundamental forces of universe. These often anonymous men and women who know foreign languages are the lynchpin of our book-reading reality, but we don’t notice them any more than we tend to notice gravity around us, keeping things grounded and giving them weight. Without gravity objects would not coalesce or remain intact, planets wouldn’t stay in their orbits, planets wouldn’t exist at all. Without gravity life would be impossible, but when it works normally we don’t notice it. So it is with translators, who provide a far more valuable service to the universe than making life possible.
Translators are only noticed in two negative contexts: when the translation in our hands strikes us a bad or clumsy; and when we can’t acquire the translation we crave. In the first context we’re passing a judgment on the aesthetic quality of the text based on our preconceived notions of what a literary text sounds and reads like, not on the accuracy of the translation, because if we’re reading a translation in the first place it’s because we lack the skills to judge that. Few are the readers who can fairly ascertain whether the faults of the translation lie in the translator or are intrinsic to the original text. I’ve read translated books that I believed were bad, but I never laid the blame at the translator’s feet because I can’t be certain of his fault. But even assuming the faults of the book stem from the translation, I think it’s preferable to have a mediocre but readable translation than none at all.
The second context occurs when translations don’t exist: finding out that the book I want to read is not available is an upsetting feeling. We readers are consumers, no matter what we think, and we believe everything we want should be within our immediate reach, and scarcity of translations infringes on our capitalist-given rights as consumers. Few seldom stop to think that translations cost money, are poorly remunerated, require a lot of hard work and take a lot of time to achieve excellence, and even then readers will find something to nitpick.
Those who complain about how translations spoil the purity of the original texts have a simple solution. They can always read them in the original. Several online bookstores now make it possible to order books from just about any country in the world. As a reader, and from the moment I first learned to read in a foreign language, I’ve made use of these two options, translations and reading in the original. They don’t work at cross-purposes but complement each other in giving the reader freedom to read more richly. It is unwise to rely too strongly on just one. Knowing foreign languages opens an astonishing breadth of possibilities to readers. All the specialised presses working tirelessly couldn’t hope to translate everything I can order from Amazon.it. Nevertheless, the handful of languages I can read pale in comparison with the variety of a single publisher’s catalogue, like Pushkin Press or Twisted Spoon Press. Those are two qualities I look for, extensiveness and diversity.
Although the Anglo-American world has an infamous and in my opinion unfair reputation regarding translations, my experience of the Portuguese market is not too different, and I’d be greatly limited if I didn’t use both options, sometimes the two at the same time. Portuguese translations have helped me to discover Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Cossery, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Franz Kafka, Ismael Kadare, Naguib Mahfouz, Gabriel García Márquez, Jules Verne, Mario Vargas Llosa, and a host of English writers before I learned English: Edgar Allen Poe, H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie.
Then there’s a whole range of non-English writers I associate mainly with the English language, because that’s how I read them or read most of their work: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Kafka’s greatest novels are known to me mainly, sometimes only, in English; Thomas Mann I’ve always only read in English. Some writers are more widely available in one language than another; some books I can get in English that I can’t in Portuguese, and vice versa. In Portugal, for instance, I have more translations of Horacio Quiroga, Selma Lagerlöf, Dino Buzzati, Max Aub, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Claudio Magris, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Enrique Vila-Matas; I can acquire all the novels of Albert Cossery. I actually have translations of Marcel Schwob, Giovanni Papini, Léon Bloy and lots of quirky, odd, obscure European writers that fill me with marvel and joy.
But there are frightful lacunas here. Every time I read people complaining that translations only make three percent of all published books in the United States, I think of this: there’s not a single book by Peter Nadas or László Krasznahorkai in Portuguese; there are less than four Carlos Fuentes books available, and none is Terra Nostra; Dario Fo only has one book in Portuguese, whereas in English there are six or seven; I once found a second-hand copy of Václav Havel’s Vanek trilogy, while in English I can buy up to eleven of his plays, almost his entire theatrical oeuvre, not to mention his letters and non-fiction; although I can read the most important of Mikhail Bulgakov’s novels in Portuguese, I’m out of luck if I want to read his plays; Eugene Ionesco is nearly impossible to find in Portuguese; Mikhail Lermontov is not available; I can’t find Eugene Onegin in Portuguese; there’s no Magdalena Tulli yet; Hermann Broch’s The Sleepwalkers is currently out of print; there are more books of Leonardo Sciascia, Herta Müller, Elfriede Jelinek, Alejo Carpentier and Halldór Laxness in English than in Portuguese. Last year I bought the Shocken edition of Franz Kafka’s diaries because they’re out of print in Portugal. Kafka out of print. Meditate on that, reader.
Portuguese collections of foreign poetry, I’m sad to say, are a disgrace. Portuguese poets are published in beautiful, painstakingly-organized hardbound editions, genuine labors of love and appropriately expensive. But everyone else? There’s a complete edition of Federico García Lorca that I know of. But I’ve had no luck finding one of Czeslaw Milosz, Zbigniew Herbert, Anna Akhmatova, Odysseus Elytis, Eugenio Montale, Joseph Brodsky, Dahlia Ravikovitch, Vasko Popa: they’re all available in English. Most of them are in Portuguese too, just in pitiful selections. Or how about actual translations of Jaroslav Seifert, Adonis, Miroslav Holub and Adam Zagajewski, currently my favorite living poet, who I only know thanks to English translations? Last year we finally released a selection of Tomas Tranströmer’s poetry. The complete poems were available in English before he had even won the Nobel Prize.
And then there are gaps in both the English and Portuguese markets. Last year I had to read Gonzalo Torrente Ballester’s La Saga/Fuga de J.B. in Spanish because I had no other options. In the English-speaking world no one has ever heard of him, and although he was once popular in Portugal, nowadays all his books are out of print. Likewise, spurred by my love for Kaputt, this month I preferred to anticipate NYRB’s release of Curzio Malaparte’s The Skin and used my poor Italian skills to finally read La Pelle. In both instances the experience was very rewarding; the ability to read in these languages is one I haven’t yet made full use of yet, but it’s reassuring to know these options exist.
Not everyone will have these options; some will have others or none at all. I for instance am at the mercy of reading whatever Russian, Polish and German literature English and Portuguese publishers deem worthy. I accept that, like I accept most things I can’t control or affect. And frankly I have very little reason to worry. Imagining that I could master all the world’s languages, or that every book I want to read were translated in a language I can read, and in print, I would still have time against me. I’ll never read everything I want to read, and that will have very little to do with shortage of translations. Even Three Percent, with its alarmist speech, has to concede that "that figure obviously represents more books than any one person could read in a year." More likely enough translations to keep a reader busy a whole lifetime. I continue to be left with the usual difficult choices readers face: what to buy, what to read, why read it, how to find time. Every book we read is another book we won’t read somewhere in our lifetime. How do we know we’re making the right choices? Translations and knowledge of foreign languages don’t help solve this conundrum at all.