Some credentialing: Over here we find the admirable Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge, which encourages geographically diversified reading. Books from eight different countries is the rule now, I think. I am not joining, on the principle that a challenge should be challenging. In 2010, I hit eight countries on February 19, with Tolstoy’s Childhood. Iceland, Norway, UK, US, France, Russian, China, and “German” – the notion of “country” is not so useful in 19th century Germany. Since then, I have visited Austria, Argentina, Chile, Spain, Mexico, Yiddishland, and Sanskritland.
What I mean is, translation matters a lot to me. Not as much as it matters to Edith Grossman, who gets to chat with Gabriel García Márquez as part of her normal work day, but a lot. But any argument about Why Translation Matters has to move past personal taste, and has to contribute something beyond the important but obvious – that translation allows us to, say, read books in languages we don’t know.
The best piece I’ve seen about Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters is by Chad Post, proprietor of the admirable Three Percent Blog, which is devoted to current literary translation and nothing but. Post’s essay is good reading just for his thoughts about the biz side of publishing, where he provides helpful context for Grossman’s complaints but also offers much more realistic ideas about what is really possible. He dismantles Grossman’s arguments that publishers have a “moral obligation” to publish translation (his term, not Grossman’s, but it’s accurate).
What does translation offer to the reader?
Imagine how bereft we would be if the only fictional worlds we could explore, the only vicarious literary experiences we could have, were those written in languages we read easily. The deprivation would be indescribable. Depending on your linguistic accomplishments, this would mean you might never have the opportunity to read Homer or Sophocles or Sappho, Catullus or Virgil, Dante or Petrarch or Leopardi, Cervantes or Lope or Quevedo, Ronsard or Rabelais or Verlaine, Tolstoy or Chekhov, Goethe or Heine: even a cursory list of awe-inspiring writers is practically endless, though I have not even left western Europe or gone past the nineteenth century to compile it. [A similar list of languages: Polish, Bulgarian, etc.] The mere idea creates a prospect that is intolerably, inconceivably bleak. (Grossman, 26)
I must admit that much of my resistance to the Why Translation Matters part of Why Translation Matters is that I can’t stand this rhetoric.* The “we” in the first sentence makes me nervous, while “indescribable,” “inconceivably” and so on seem absurd. Everyone who stops by Wuthering Expectations for any purpose besides trolling for term paper ideas is well-read, in something, often in many things. Now, please, tell me if the absence of Pierre de Ronsard,** Lope de Vega, or Heinrich Heine from your life makes it intolerably bleak. I ask this as someone who has read in some depth into every writer on that list, my recent encounter with Paul Verlaine taking care of the last one (she got me with Bulgarian, though).
Maybe the list meant to be purely metaphorical? It can’t be, though – imagine someone whose list of the writers he can’t imagine living without went: Poe, Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson, H. James, Cather, T. Eliot, E. Bishop, and so on. Is there some argument against that list? That's a good list! Some good readers do just fine without the help of translation.
Is all of the weight on the word “opportunity”? The argument has to be based on opportunity, not on actual reading. The social value of translation is different that the individual value. Are you reading enough books in translation? Yes, you likely are, even if the number is zero. If that does not sound sufficiently absurd: Are you reading enough Sanskrit literature? Are you reading enough poetry? Are you listening to enough jazz? More of any of these virtuous cultural activities means less of whatever virtuous cultural (or non-cultural!) activity you are engaged in now. Reading more translations is not free - it means less of something else that is valuable.
The social arguments for more, more, more translation, with which I agree, completely, do not actually depend on any particular reader. The social value of translation is very high; the individual value – well, that varies enormously. Someone has to read these books, but how many, or who, is another question. Chad Post, out on the frontlines, suspects that shaming people into enjoying literary translation (or poetry, jazz, Sanskrit plays, etc.) is not a long-run solution, which seems right.
I put a high value on the remarkable Clay Sanskrit Library, and I am shocked and dismayed that no one is reading these books for a blog project. But does that mean that I did something remarkable when I recently read a couple of Kālidāsa plays? Should you feel bad if you haven’t read them, or that a great deal of Sanskrit literature has never been translated? The prospect is tolerable, and conceivable.
The literary translator expands the possibilities of our culture. Good ones, like Edith Grossman, are invaluable, or at least greatly underpaid and underappreciated. Did I recommend her fine The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance yet? And Love in the Time of Cholera, what a book, right? And the second half of Why Translation Matters, I think many people will get a lot out of that.
No more Why Translation Matters, but tomorrow, one more reason that translation matters.
* And I’m leaving aside high-pitched oddities like “the crisis in translation” and declining literary translation as “a hovering and constant threat to civil liberties.”
** Several years ago, I combed through Ronsard translations. They ranged from serviceable to disgraceful. I wish Grossman had clued me into the good one.