novelist Norman Manea, two premier experts in the realm of literature
in translation—Susan Harris of Words
and Chad Post of Three
and Open Letter—and award-winning translator from German Susan
Bernofsky address a literary zone in permanent crisis: the world of
literature in translation.
JH: Let’s start
with this: whom are you addressing, as writer, publisher, editor or
NM: Speaking as a
writer, as regards a literary “message,” it’s always a matter
of throwing a bottle into the sea and seeking the unknown
interlocutor, the potential reader.
our audience includes readers of international fiction, educated
general readers, readers with particular interest in specific
cultures or languages, educators, travelers, editors, publishers,
students, translators, writers, critics—anyone interested in
contemporary literature and the world outside the English-language
As a publisher, I think we’re addressing readers who are curious
about what’s going on—culturally and artistically—in the rest
of the world. At Open Letter (www.openletterbooks.org
we do try and find books that are unique in some way, or maybe a
better way to put it is that they’re specific to their culture.
Nothing bugs me more than going on an editorial trip to Country X and
having a rights person insist that we should publish Author Y,
because his writing is “just like Jonathan Franzen’s.” I’m
interesting in international literature because it’s different
and I think our readers feel the same way
which covers more of the publishing world, is a bit different. The
audience is larger and I consciously try to do a number of things
with the site for the field as a whole. Aside from linking to
interesting sites and stories (of which there are many, many to link
to), we try and really highlight translated books that have fallen
through the media cracks, try and present some hard data on how many
books are published in translation, and try to give people some
insight into how the book business functions. I could be wrong, but I
think the site has a broader reach, and hopefully is contributing
something of value to all the readers, translators, authors, critics,
and booksellers out there who are interested in literature from
beyond our borders.
Susan Bernofsky, who do you translate for?
Everyone who likes stories. Everyone who’s interested in learning
about the sorts of storytelling practiced in other parts of the
What drives you to write, translate or publish literature in
translation, or to translate (Susan Bernofsky), or to write what must
be translated (Norman).
Writing what must inevitably be translated is my way of surviving in
exile. But I don't write "what must be translated." I write
what I write. Then I'm glad if it happens that the text also
goes into other languages.
I’m bowled over by how many wonderful things there are to read in
German. (The same no doubt holds true for most other languages.) It
makes me happy to share some of these wonderful stories and writers
with people who happen not to be able to read German. Translating is
also a literary challenge that I enjoy from a writerly point of view.
Understanding, or at least having some insight into, foreign
cultures is crucial, and we want to make the very best world
literature, translated by the finest translators, available to
readers for whom it would otherwise be inaccessible. Limiting one’s
experience to one’s native country and language is terribly
parochial and ultimately impoverishing. It’s not that foreign
literature is inherently elevatated, but the best literature, in any
language, serves as a portal to culture and society.
This sounds really bad, but in a roundabout way, I’m motivated by
my monolingualism. After college I fell in love with Latin American
literature—especially Cortazar—and started trying to revive my
Spanish so that I could read the dozens of books I’d heard about,
but which had yet to be translated. By the time I got serious about
this though, I was off and reading a ton of French Oulipo books. Then
titles from Eastern Europe. I’ll never be able to speak a dozen
languages (like translator Michael Henry Heim does), so I have to
rely on English publishers to make available all the great books
being written around the world. Probably just an ADD thing, but by
not specializing in one language/literature, I feel like I can
indulge my roaming interests, and look for books to publish from
Asia, then Latin America, then France, then the Nordic Countries,
Chad and I have something in common here. When I arrived at college,
I discovered to my dismay that majoring in English meant focusing not
on international literature, but on American and British writing.
Well, I thought, I’ll be a comparative literature major. But that
required multiple languages, for which I was not equipped (twelve
years of Catholic school left me fluent in Latin, but not much else).
I took all the lit in translation courses available and began to
realize how crucial translation was to the understanding of world
literary tradition and culture.
We live in an age of globalization, and of course none of us can read
all the world’s languages, so we can all say, we have to read many
things in translation if we are to read them at all. What else is
there that drives the passion for foreign literatures in this English
speaking group? I expect a very special answer from Norman who grew
up speaking several languages and who has English as the language of
exile, and who may have ideas about what he thinks we all are looking
for. Nevertheless, I want to ask all of you, what need of yours does
literature in translation fill?
For me translation fulfills a very personal need. I came to the US in
1988, and my first books were published here in 1992, relatively soon
after that. When I arrived, I had already had books published in
German, French, Italian, and Dutch. This helped. If I had
arrived with only Romanian publications, my chances of being
published in the US would have been delayed or worse. It helped that
Eastern Europe was already boiling at the time, and the political
interest in the region was growing. This is how it happened that a
writer of not very “popular” books—which is to say of books
that were considered too "literary" and not very
saleable—came to be accepted. Surprisingly, my good luck continued.
The books received universally wonderful reviews, and the author was
awarded important American prizes. Needless to say, all these things
became essential steps in making my new home in the States and in
easing my contact with the new culture.
For me, reading in translation fulfills two desire: to learn about
other countries and cultures, and to read so much writing that would
otherwise be unavailable due to language barriers.
Difference plays a large role in defining the sort of art that I
like. I like books that are unusual in some way—that use a unique
form for telling a story or that are set in a locale that I’m not
familiar with—whether they’re originally written in English or in
another language. Literature (well, all art forms) has the
possibility of presenting the world in a way that can shake up the
way you usually see the world. Sure, there’s the argument that
there are only 12 basic stories (or is it 7?), but there are millions
of ways in which those stories can be presented, both in terms of the
form of the novel and the style of the writing. For whatever
reason—the rise in MFA programs? the negative influence of
corporate publishing and its unrelenting focus on the bottom line?
the lack of diversity in works covered by the media?—most (but not
all) American fiction has become pretty predictable and not all that
adventurous. But the books I’m reading from other countries are
much more aesthetically interesting. People like Tom McCarthy from
Britain, Gamal al-Ghitani from Egypt, Attila Bartis from Hungary, or
in the case of the books we publish, Dubravka Ugresic, Bragi
Olafsson, Jan Kjaerstad—all of these writers are trying to do
something special, and all of them also seem to take literature
seriously as an art form. It’s not just a commercial endeavor like
it is for some (but not all) American writers. Writing meanssomething
more to international authors. At least in my opinion.
Thank goodness for translators – I can’t imagine my literary
world without writers like Kafka, Borges and Queneau in it. Once you
catch the foreign-literature bug, it’s hard to stop wanting to read
stories that were written and set elsewhere. Maybe the most exciting
thing I read last year was a vast family novel called The
written in the late 19th
century by José Maria de Eça de Queirós, beautifully translated by
Margaret Jull Costa.
That having been said, what needs to be translated?
Who can be sure? The better the text, the more important the
text…The enterprise is so convoluted. The only think we do know is
that translation is necessary, communication between people and
cultures and nations is necessary. More books mean more chances
although nobody can predict the end result, not even a pessimist like
Norman is right. That’s always a trick question to answer, since
the books that I feel need to be translated, but aren’t yet, are
often the ones I’m trying to acquire . . . But I’m willing to
guarantee that there are a few dozen masterpieces from China, Japan,
India. It’s crazy that despite the popularity of so many
English-speaking Indian authors, almost no Indian novels are
translated from the 20-some odd other officially recognized
languages, and any number of African countries. Two of the best books
I’ve read recently, by the way, are by Abdourahman
Waberi of Djibouti and Alain Mabanckou from the Congo.
a small percentage of new works of high-caliber literature published
in Germany, Switzerland and Austria are translated each year, and
each country has classic works that have never been translated.
Publishers are wary of publishing too many translations because there
isn’t a larger readership for them, and there isn’t a larger
readership because too few translations are published. We ought to
be creating a readership for translated literature by publishing more
of it and promoting it more aggressively from the perspective of
“Gained in Translation.”
As we promote literature in translation, are we creating a market or
following a star?
I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.
We’re doing a little of both, I’d say, and it depends on the
“we” doing the promotion. There’s a terrible tendency in
American culture that I think of as the “one representative”
problem—for any country/language/ethic group, there tends to be one
representative that is beloved, critically praised, etc., and becomes
the gold standard that allows readers and reviewers to ignore the
rest of the writers from that group. For instance, Saramago is thePortuguese
writer who gets read and reviewed; Antunes is hardly even known in
the States. This sort of “star-making” is a bit dangerous, I
think. It’s as if by reading one author, we now know all we need to
know about that country’s literature and can get back to our
homegrown authors. At the same time, there are a lot of people,
publications, bookstores, and websites that go against this trend,
and by introducing a range of authors and books, they are managing to
create a genuine interest in international literature as a whole.
The clearest way I can say this is, we are expanding a market.
To the extent that we are sensitive to the realities of the
marketplace, what does the market seem to want? Do we have any ways
to know what “it” wants?
we are not precisely about the market, but we want readers to seek us
out not so much for news as for the context and background for
current events: to come to us for a sense of daily life in Tehran,
for example, after the terrible events in Iran. We publish work by
writers from countries that, in the USA, are primarily known in
political contexts. Without being naïve, we do want to present these
cultures in an artistic light.
Historically, I’d say that the reading public seen as a single
entity tends to buy what it is told everyone is buying. The silly
claim that people don’t like reading books in translation is a
self-fulfilling prophecy. It certainly didn’t stop people from
reading and enjoying Gabriel García Márquez’s One
Hundred Years of Solitude (Spanish),
Umberto Eco’s The
Name of the Rose
(Italian) or Patrick Süskind’s Perfume
(German) or any number of other foreign-language bestsellers. People
in this country like reading wonderful stories that are wonderfully
written—but in the case of a foreign author they may never have
heard of before, the book needs to be marketed properly to get on
people’s radar in the first place.
There’s another point that needs to be made here. Any good and
experienced publisher will tell you he doesn't really know, even
after many years in this profession, why some books succeed and other
fail. We are always in an odd, fluid territory and so we try. Again
instance, when I first came to the States I tried to propose several
Romanian contemporary authors whom I liked to American publishers. No
dice. It wasn’t only a matter of Romanian writers. Some years ago I
suggested an excellent book by Claudio Magris, Far
Nobody wanted it. The pretext (or perhaps the real reason) was
that Magris’s Danube book, which was otherwise published around the
world, didn't have a US market. When I finally found a publisher
ready to consider the book, I was asked if the Italian or Austrian
government would financially support the publication.
regard to the “demand” for Romanian writers: Romanian authors
are more available in the United States, possibly because of the
success of the current Romanian cinema, perhaps on account of
Romania’s spate of bad international press, which may have enhanced
interest in this "exotic" country with all its oddities. Or
perhaps the new availability is due to the persistent effort of
Romanian publishers, official institutions, personal contacts.
do hope this opening will continue but I'm not very optimistic about
a drastic change in the level of American indifference to and
ignorance of foreign literatures. On the other hand, I'm not very
optimistic about the future of good literature in general either.
not dealing with cars or food or computers that are essential for
daily life. Books are not absolutely necessary for everyone.
I love pointing out to my interns just how shitty and self-involved
the publishing world is when it comes to understanding the market.
There’s no such thing as market research in publishing, but if you
ask an editor he/she won’t hesitate to claim that “there is no
market” for certain books in translation. And then along comes
Bolano, or Muriel Barbery . . . I think there is a craving for
genuinely good literature. With so many entertainment options
available, books have to be something special to compete for
someone’s time, attention, and money. My feeling is that editors
and big publishing houses are overly sensitive to what they
the market wants (although most publishers despise readers and would
never want to talk to them about books or what they want from
fiction), and have gotten away from acquiring and publishing books
based on a belief that they
makes a great work of literature. It’s an old joke, but really, who
would publish something like Ulyssestoday?
“Too hard to follow, way too long, probably won’t get a review in
Do we agree that a specific upper layer of the market craves
literature in translation? Can you create a composite portrait of
translation readers? Is it even possible to speak of translation
readers a composite group?
We did a survey when we first started publishing, and it turned out
that the majority of our readers identified themselves as being in
the media, with educators a close second, and travelers third. I
think literature in translation appeals to readers of literary
fiction in English, and readers who may not be regular readers of
fiction but are interested in foreign countries and cultures; and I
would agree that it appeals to a cosmopolitan, intellectual
To put it another way, this composite group exists but is not very
Right. This is a tricky question as well, because I think it’s as
much about what gets published in translation as who buys literature
in translation. And in a way, “literature” might be the operative
word. True literary fiction doesn’t really sell that well in
America, and never really has. I’ve heard that James Laughlin (the
founder of New Directions) once said that there are only 10,000
readers of literature in the States—they might not all read the
same books, but that’s the basic pool of readers that might be
interested in reading a high quality work of literature. Genre
fiction in translation—especially Scandinavian thrillers—doappeal
to a wide audience. But the typical work of fiction in translation
tends to be more on the “high literature” end of the
spectrum—there’s so little of it that’s published, that what
actually makes its way into English tends to be pretty damn good. And
keep in mind that 80+% of the works in translation published in the
States are from independent and university presses—places like
Archipelago, NYRB, Dalkey Archive, New Directions that all have
strong editorial visions and publish truly literary works. I think
there’s maybe a composite group of readers who read literature
because they love literature; which is different from people who read
solely to be entertained.
Look at it this way: the subset of readers who reads translations
overlaps to a large extent with the subset of readers interested in
books by “difficult” or “literary” writers in English.
Someone who likes Charles Dickens probably also likes Thomas Mann.
Then there are readers who are just plain curious about life in other
countries, and that curiosity extends to foreign literature. Buying
a book is a much easier (and cheaper) way to spend a few hours
immersed in another country than boarding an airplane. Of course,
every fictional universe is already a foreign country, and there’s
no guarantee that the landscapes and customs we find in books will
correspond so exactly with actual life in the places where they are
set, but it’s a start.
Let me turn the question around. Are there readers in the United
States who would enjoy supermarket literature from “exotic locals”
or literatures of small circulation? In Romania, where 80 per cent
of the country’s reading matter appears in translation, there is a
very cosmopolitan market for a wide spectrum of sophisticated writing
that appeals to an intellectual class—necessarily small, as in any
society—and there is also a relatively substantial market for
middlebrow and sub-middlebrow writing, in translation as it happens.
I have assumed that this middlebrow consumption can be subsumed under
the heading “aspiring minds want to know,” but I wonder if you
perceive a reverse phenomenon—an English speaking middle market
that seeks middle market writing from abroad?
Probably such a demand may exist. Again, I'm not sure how big such
interest may be. It also depends on advertisement, for sure. The
situation of a small country (and an isolated language) is very
different from that of a big one. What a reader in English is offered
is already overwhelming. English is now the Lingua Franca of the
world, yet many cultures are ignored in its import. It's a
pity, certainly, this provincialism of the metropolis, its
imperialist cultural power, but that's it, and it will not change.
The appeal of exoticism always exists, of course, but exoticism
itself is responding daily to what the market already offers.
Interesting. I think in America there’s a large audience for
middlebrow fiction from ethnic minorities. Readers buy more books by
their Mexican-American writers who write about life in the U.S.
through an ethnic lens than buy of books by Mexicans writing about
life in Mexico.
I think that this market exists, so long as the books can be sneaked
by as “set in another place,” rather than as written in another
language. For much of the US reading public, the idea of translation
is still daunting: difficult, depressing, and foreign,
rather than appealingly exotic. (Though there would seem to be more
than enough domestic production of this product to obviate the need
We are probably all “on the same page.” On the one hand, I
haven’t noticed particular “middlebrow” interest in foreign
literature in the United States—it seems to be a more “highbrow”
phenomenon, with the notable exception of international bestsellers
Name of the Rose
— which leads me, on the other hand, to suspect that “middlebrow”
readers would be happy to read such books if only they were properly
marketed to them. But in fact the publishing world here seems to be
resigned to the fact that literature in translation is an elite,
niche market. I think this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If
someone has a spare couple of million dollars and feels like
experimenting, it might be interesting to see what would happen if a
literary book in translation were marketed as heavily as a
bestseller. Would it sell? I think it might.
I think so too.
With regard to what we publish, can we lead or must we follow? Our
policy at The
Observer Translation Project
is to lead, to the extent that we can, by offering quality and
variety. Is there leading or following in this domain?
Please, by all means: lead, lead, lead!
Agreed. Offering quality and variety is the best option in my
opinion too. Not without risk, of course, but offering trash also
implies risk, especially when we speak about translation and foreign
markets. The end result is uncertain in both cases. So, it's better
to go with quality and variety. So it's good to lead but it probably
also helps to sensitively follow what is out there, simultaneously.
Independent and university presses can and must lead. We have the
right model—smaller, more flexible, not based on the (failing)
blockbuster gambit—to be able to take more risks and cultivate a
particular audience. Although most people buy books without paying
attention to the publisher, indie presses do build loyal fan bases.
These presses tend to have a specific vision, and readers come to
trust that what’s published by Archipelago or NYRB is sure to be of
high quality. This is getting a bit off track, but as the
sales/distribution model continues to evolve (or, um, fall apart),
indie presses have a real opportunity to connect with their audiences
in a meaningful, mutually beneficial way. And if they’re leaders in
terms of deciding what should be published—and readers do respect
the fact that an editor/publisher has a sense of what they think
needs to be published—these presses will help shape the future of
book culture. And look around at today’s book market—the crap
that’s sold by the carton load at Costco, or whatever—it’s
pretty important that there are presses that are concerned with
literature as literature, instead of books as commercial product.
This leads to the question of classics. Here, I am not talking about
Aeschylus. Limiting ourselves to the zone of Romanian novels and
short stories and setting folk materials aside, Romanian prose
fiction is relatively new. Classic Romanian novels date back to the
nineteenth century, and it can be argued that “modern classics”
were written well into the twentieth century. Is there a market for
translated fiction from this extended period? Or, to look at the
matter another way, does period count at all? Are quality in the
source text and in the translation the only desiderata, or are there
other factors that govern choice of acquisition?
Period counts. In the case of small, almost unknown cultures,
the greater interest is provided by contemporary books, I think. The
classic are mainly for bibliography, universities and research.
Are you talking about American publishers deciding what books to
acquire? I think there are two categories deemed interesting: the
current cutting edge, and the great modern classics (which can
certainly extend into at least the first half of the 20th
century, in isolated cases even further).
We tend to publish contemporary work only, but we will make the
occasional exception for work we find particularly valuable.
Most commercial publishers tend to focus on only the new, which I
think is a bit of a mistake. Some of the best-selling titles I’ve
worked on both for Open Letter and Dalkey Archive were these “modern
classics.” Frequently, these books are still read in their home
country today because they are great books—classics. And to a
general reader, a book in translation is always new . . .
Every translation is the result of a battle between “domestication”
and “respecting the foreign.” One needs to create compellingly
readable sentences in the target language while leaving intact
cultural values inherent in the original text. Granted. Nevertheless,
it’s worth asking: do US/UK readers need to have cultural
differences ironed out at the linguistic level, or are they/we
willing to read non-Anglo-American statements? To give an example
from a Romanian short story: a minor church official says devil
take them for fools
in a moment of stress. He is using a turn-of-the-century Romanian
expression that lacks blasphemous ramifications in the context of
Orthodox Christianity. Smoothness might tempt us to translate his
phrase as God
The problem with the smoother, more familiar expression is that we
cause the character to utter an Anglo-Americanism with serious,
Protestant notions of damnation attached. Is smoothness and
familiarity worth the perversion? To what extent is foreignness
acceptable, given that we go to literature in translation for
"Otherness" is not easy to reach through an overly bizarre
otherness. I think that smoothness should prevail but not overwhelm
and kill the specificity of the text. Here and there, we should allow
the transport of some oddities, originality, local flavor.
My feeling about this—and I know that it sounds like a bit of a
cop-out—is that it’s situational and book-by-book. What’s most
important is that a book works as a whole, artistic object. In some
novels, “devil take them for fools” will stand out and seem very
off-putting, but in other instances, if handled correctly it will be
perfectly logical and get out of all the Anglo-American baggage that
comes with “God damn them.” Nevertheless, a lot of the
nuances—that this is an old Romanian expression that carries a
certain amount of weight—will probably be lost, although for a
reader unfamiliar with Romania and Romanian literature, a context
will be created for this phrase in the process of reading the work,
and a very good translator can actually recapture some of those
nuances in the way he/she translates the rest of the book.
I am of two minds, like Norman and Chad. Referring to his renderings
of Pushkin, Nabokov argued for “footnotes like skyscrapers”:
towers of commentary that would cover the page and restore the
context and allusions leached out in his literal translations. Most
of us would reject this approach, yet we all acknowledge that not all
of the layers of meaning embedded in a text survive translation. Do
we look for equivalents that correspond to the social and other
signifiers in the original? Do we retain the foreignness and trust
the reader to absorb it? Do we serve the reader or the writer? It’s
not that binary, of course.
To tackle this one from personal experience, I wrote a book about
the history of this question in the German 18th
century. I’m a strong believer in asking target-language readers
to cope with unfamiliar language use at times, and I don’t really
think this poses such a problem for readers. After all, lots of
writers who write English use the language in idiosyncratic ways, and
we just chalk it up to style. Many publishers are Nervous Nellies in
this regard, but I think their fears are exaggerated.
This leads us to the vexed question of editing translation. Who
edits translation into English today? Are good English skills enough
to qualify for the post of translations’ editor? If good English
skills are sufficient, under what circumstances are they sufficient?
Since no editor can speak or have reading familiarity with every
language that crosses her desk, what makes an editor able to assist
in the realization of the text in the new language?
I would argue that good English skills are paramount for editing
translations: above all, the text must work in English. One develops
an ear (and eye), and much of the work of editing translations is not
appreciably different from editing pieces written in English. I know
I’ve become sensitive to the sorts of odd or awkward phrasing that
can indicate a mistranslation or a flawed word choice.
Speaking personally, I went through hell with my first translations
here: some eight translators for one book, none very good, but each
of them knowing better English than I did. I worked for three months
almost daily with the editor who, fortunately, knew French and
Italian. She used the French and Italian translations— rewriting
almost every sentence. Still, I was lucky. This happened twenty years
ago. Now nobody will allow an editor to do such work. Especially for
an unknown writer, as I was at that time.
my last book in English, I paid, from my own pocket, a retired editor
with whom I worked many months in not a very cordial atmosphere to
redo every sentence. The publisher didn't agree to pay even a part of
the cost or to mention the name of this collaborator in the book.
the meantime, some new, better translators have appeared, but
translation is badly paid, not really praised. Many editors don’t
know many languages and don’t have time to do a good job. SoThe
Observer Translation Project is
a very good idea, and I imagine something like it must exist in other
Chad, you work as an independent publisher, which is to say in the
very small zone where editing still exists. What do you have to say
A good editor may not know the source language, but will be able to
see the translation as a whole, and have a sense of how the book
should read in the end. This editor will be able to help craft the
translation not just to “smooth it out in English,” but to make
the novel work as a whole. This can mean making certain parts more
“foreign,” and others a bit less so although the most important
skill I think an English editor working on a translation needs is the
ability to know which knotty lines he/she should ask the translator
about. Every book has a few of these bits where the translator wasn’t
exactly sure how best to express something, or it’s simply just not
coming across—being able to call attention to those and to then
hash out the best way to render them in English is extremely
important. A good editor doesn’t work on an island, but works with
the translator (and author when appropriate) to create the best
possible English version of the book.
I have to agree. The same editing skills that apply to the best
editors of English apply to the best editors of literature translated
into English as well. Great editors have a sixth sense that tells
them exactly what a book’s style wants to be and shows them the
spots where it diverges from this ideal. If there’s an outright
mistake in the translation, an editor may or may not be able to spot
it (depending on whether it breaks the skin of the book’s mood) –
but that’s not the editor’s job, that’s the job of the
Another tough question: what do you have to say about the open secret
of “non-translation?” I’m tempted to call this “rendition.”
Writing from languages of small circulation often faces
“non-translation.” The process involves two or more
individuals—(a) a person or persons who speak the language of the
text and who also speak some English, and (b) a person who has no
ability to read the source language but who has—hopefully—good
English skills. The native speaker/s (sometimes the author, sometimes
a collection of others) tell the “translator” about the item to
be turned into English. The non-translator then comes up with a
more-or-less skillful rendition that has every chance of missing the
essence of the original. Are you aware of this process? What do you
have to say about it?
“Non-translation” is clearly not preferable to translation, but
the reality of our world includes the sad fact that appropriate
translators do not exist for every single language pair out there, so
it’s inevitable that publishers must sometimes resort to this
method. To my mind, it is a method of last resort. Sometimes it
produces interesting and valuable results, particularly—and this is
odd—in the case of poetry, which I think must be because a
translated poem that is a poem in its own right in the language of
the translation is often so greatly transformed in the process that
space exists in the gap between the languages for the negotiation
with the “native speaker informant” to take place.
I’ve seen examples of this sort of collaboration that work really
well (usually when both parties know both languages—they just know
one of the two much better than the other), but in general, these
translations are pretty clunky and read like translations. What’s
interesting about this though is that the translation is salvageable
with the help of a perceptive, talented editor. I recently came
across an example of this: a couple translating from Chinese did one
book that was pretty much unedited, and it read like a mediocre first
draft. They did a second book that was carefully edited and actually
reads really, really well. I don’t think their skills improved much
between the two projects—but the editorial effort definitely did. I
think it’s also an open secret that editors don’t do much editing
these days . . . Or do what Boyd Tonkin calls “zen editing.”
We’ve been discussing this recently in compiling our forthcoming
anthology of international poetry in translation—not so much the
team model as a non-translator producing a “version” of the
original. For poetry in particular, “renditions” or “versions”
can be as effective as more literal translations. As for team
translation, we’ve published a number of examples of it; when done
well, it can produce marvelous results. I suppose the ideal
translator would have native fluency in both source and target
culture, so I prefer to work with teams where the native English
speaker also has the source language.
If this is not redundant, what do you think about the short to
medium term future of literature in translation—as we speak?
It’s endangered, as is everything else involving funding,
literature, arts—but there will always be a market for
The last prophets died thousand of years ago and even they were often