Stochastic Bookmark

abstruse unfinished commentary

about correspondence


Literary translation: a matter of import

This is a difficult post to pull together. I could speak of what translated literature means to me, but that might not mean that much to you. So I'll try to confine myself to what it means to us.

But who's (or whose) us? Readers, certainly, particularly those who read literature in preference to, say, genre fiction (not that there's no overlap). Still, the effects are far wider, as word and story permeate other media (and vice versa). And as the arts are permeable, so too culture: f'rinstance, one foundation stone of Modernism is Pound's free translation of classical Chinese poetry. To "make it new" one must see it anew, from unfamiliar perspectives or in different contexts. I will not speak of cultures, as such are merely thematic variations on universal human urges, drawing upon disparate resources, some local, some from beyond the horizon ... often, it's the latter that revitalizes the former. And as distances diminish, our world expands.

Languages provide modes of expression that recalibrate distances, redraw the map, somewhat akin to geometries or topologies, with variations not just between but within them (from dialect all the way down to idiolect). Insights that occur naturally in one language may be harder to accomplish in another; literature traffics in more elaborate insights, drawing deeply upon the resources of language, and literary translation captures what's essential to it, not the destination but the journey, or more geometrically, the transformation. (I've previously drawn the analogy to musical transcription, but changes to coordinate systems are also apt; it all works because the underlying matter is the same.)

The above is more sketch than exposition, but I hope it conveys the importance I attach to literature in translation and to the processes and people who support it: not only the translators (for whom it is more a labor of love than of money), but also the publishers and promoters (for whom, similarly), which is why I natter on so about the BTBA. Fortunately, the number of non-profit cultural conduits has increased in recent years (and continues: welcome aboard, Transit Books! and there's a slew of others [pdf] deserving of mention). Unfortunately, a keystone to the support system, the National Endowment for the Arts, is under siege, despite its making a little go a long way (as may also be said of the non-profits); many foundations and state agencies use NEA grants as indicators for what's worthy of their support. The ensuing uncertainties have only added to the precarities of publishing literature in translation.

So here comes the ask.

Archipelago Books (on whose board I serve) has launched its annual fundraising drive. I've long been a supporter (and fan) of the press, as the diversity of its efforts have consistently maintained a high standard of quality; this spring it embarked on another tack, bringing children's literature in translation into play with a new imprint, Elsewhere Editions. And recognition keeps coming, for specific titles as well as for overall efforts: Jill Schoolman will be receiving the Ottaway award from Words Without Borders in November. Such recognition helps, but in the current environment, individual support is more important than ever, in itself and again as an indicator for foundations and others. Numbers matter, beyond dollars: the scope of individual support influences other funding sources and the politicians in whose hands rests the fate of the NEA. So give what you can. It's worth it. (Another opportunity to show support, in person, is the Fall FĂȘte on Oct 5 at the Wythe. Hope to see you there!)

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