One of the great joys over more than three decades working with developing writers is teaching literature in translation—world literature made newer and stranger by its expression in English. What’s most gratifying is to guide discoveries of original international voices, our focus on structure and language, and on how stories can transition from native sources into our own. Translators are the mediums, the scholars, the ghostwriters whose task it is to revise, line-by-line, in the purest sense of re-vision, and then the best of them pull off a magic trick—they disappear. Translation can be a mystery as profound as the creative act itself, nothing less than inventing new art from an original and combining both into one. Developing writers who search deeply into this mystery, especially those who try translating themselves, learn not only about craft and technique and the variety and beauty of sentences and narratives, they can take on voices other than their own, let strange new language possess them. One happy result is how these voices can correspond with a writer’s own original art, shape-shifting into a transformed identity.
Cultural assimilation is a part of this, too—gaining knowledge of foreign places and people. And that the students I work with are writing in English is essential, as English has become like a Grand Central Station for great world literature to journey elsewhere. Much like Latin in the age of Cicero, only more so now, multiplied in scale almost unimaginably because of internet possibilities for panglobal publication, English is the destination where a novel or story or poem can be internationally recognized, or can arrive enough so that it travels everywhere else. The currency of English to the broadest numbers and kinds of readers is due to more than its global dominance as the language of capitalism—it’s the nature of English itself, its qualities of openness and linearity. Like a long train onto which an infinite number of new cars can be attached, English has an astonishing capacity to absorb elements from other languages and just keep moving. English is accused for this, too, and resisted for its dominance in the Third World, perhaps best exemplified by the stance of Kenyan author and literary activist, Ngugi wa Thiong’o (writing now almost exclusively in his native Gikuyu), who advocates as a matter of cultural responsibility that global resources should be invested in new publication ventures and translating world literature into endangered native languages to preserve them.
This preservationist issue is a serious one, as global access to international writing increasingly happens mainly by translation into English first (or this can happen also first into French, but then the most common route for a book’s global journey carries it straight to English next as the gateway). Many international readers experience writers first in English before their own languages, so much so that editions in translation can become signature publications, as is the case for novels by Mo Yan, the recent Chinese Nobel Laureate, who benefitted from inventive versions in French, and in English by translator Howard Goldblatt, before his books journeyed elsewhere (and perhaps, as Mo Yan has suggested, significantly improved). How much of the Latin American “boom” of the 1970s and ’80s was set off—detonated—by Gregory Rabassa’s legendary translation of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude? How much new interest in East European writing was stimulated by enthusiastic critical responses to the late great Michael Henry Heim’s translation of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which took the scenic route (as have books, for example, by the Albanian satirical master Ismail Kadare) by being first published modestly in French editions before taking off globally from the launching pad of English?
As literature in translation leads to their broader global understanding, developing writers should become aware of what a special privilege it is to write in English, what a gift to stand at the red hot center of something, what inspiring opportunities to make use of almost every kind of writing there is to shape and transform their own visions. Being at this red hot center also carries a special responsibility. In his essay “Des Tours de Babel” (translated by Joseph F. Graham), the late theorist Jacques Derrida writes that, before the destruction of Babel, “the great Semitic family was establishing its empire, which it wanted universal, and its tongue, which it also attempted to impose on the universe.” In a witty play of deconstruction of the tale in Genesis, Derrida suggests that rather than for blasphemously attempting to deify ourselves by building a tower high enough to reach the heavens, God instead cast mankind into a confusion of tongues for the greater sin of trying to conquer the world with a single dominant language.
In 2002, at a reception before a presentation by Jacques Derrida and scholar-translator Peggy Kamuf at UC Irvine, during which there was much discussion of the concept of the ever-present “other” possible to subvert an established order directly linked to literary translation (the event marked the launch of UCI’s International Center for Writing and Translation), I joined a loose conversation circle that gathered around the scholars. I raised the issue of the dominance of English as a possibly destructive world hegemony (which seemed timely, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o would soon join the UC Irvine faculty). Trying to be funny, I likened English to that cult 1970s horror film Attack of the Killer Tomatoes—a language slurping and swallowing everything in its path. I quoted a sentence to demonstrate this, written by Christopher Towne Leland, taken from his lively craft book, The Art of Compelling Fiction. (I imagine this sentence spoken by a Brooklyn apartment dweller, a Jewish-mother type with a strong city accent complaining about her noisy neighbors): “She’s a diva and he’s a macho poseur—all that kvetching over a pair of khaki mukluks on the futon!”
People in our little circle laughed. So did Peggy Kamuf. But not the grand Jacques. The sentence is over the top, sure, with its Ellis Island absorptions: Italian, Spanish, French, Yiddish, Hindi, Inuit, and Japanese, all held together by a few stocky Anglo-Saxonisms (the articles and conjunctions, the prepositions and determiner), yet it’s still a comprehensible sentence. It shows off the versatility of English in its freedom to absorb nouns and verbs, its easy fluidity in making present participles, and maybe what makes English so all devouring. Derrida paused a moment—I recall him dramatically putting his hand to his chin with a sly smile, then he waved it over our circle in a dismissively amused gesture. “Well then,” he said. “We see by this how ‘the other’ has subverted English.”
Touché. And Derrida was right, not only about language but about writers. After all, isn’t what writers are after when we read world literature in translation, searching into its linguistic strangeness and cultural roots, somehow to allow ‘the other’ to influence us, even subvert us? And of course writers in English confront and absorb major influences by first reading deeply into American and British authors (this should go without saying), but from what sources are newness and strangeness most likely to be discovered? Russian Formalist thinkers defined literary writing (as opposed to any other kind of writing, or Literature spelled with a big L, as scholar-theorist Terry Eagleton puts it) as conveying a mysterious quality of language made strange, and I agree. As Mikhail Bakhtin asserts so eloquently in his essay “Epic and Novel,” it’s the fixed forms, the immovable, all too familiar genres, that should be considered dead. Engagement with the continuous present is what defines the new in the novel, what keeps the form alive. Writers should be taking on new voices all the time, challenging their language, seeking out their own subversions. With so much great Literature in translation available to us in the twenty-first century, standing as we are at the red hot center of things, aside from keeping up with the most ingenious of our contemporaries who write in English (most of whom probably crafted their voices and styles like great big killer tomatoes set loose into the world), why should serious, ambitious writers be reading much of anything else?
Contemporary world literature in translation wasn’t always this available in the United States. Fifteen years ago, the publishing and academic communities took strong note of a cultural crisis caused by a lack of new translated books making it into English. And this was happening during an unprecedented era of economic globalization when actually knowing something about the world should have been more important than ever before. This sad state of affairs in publishing reached public consciousness as the result of a white paper commissioned by the National Endowment for the Arts, a brainchild of its visionary literature director, the late Cliff Becker, an arts organization hero, a true pioneer. Cited in the November/December 2002 issue of Poets & Writers, of the approximately 70,000 published books from all fields in the United States in 2000, fewer than 300 were literary translations. (The study came up with 287 as a number, but this figure is still in dispute—the point is that shockingly few translations were being published, and many of this paltry number were updated versions of books already in English in some form.) Internal surveys of the memberships of PEN and the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) revealed the median age of literary translators to be about fifty. Few young scholars and writers were being attracted to literary translation.
Along with this, humanities disciplines in the academy were suffering from increasing assaults by marketplace ideologies demanding justifications for their continued existence related to “measurable outcomes” and “job placement” numbers in direct competition with the so-called “STEM” disciplines—science, technology, engineering, math—so hotly in demand by the global economy. Comparative literature departments were being steadily eliminated except at the best and most elite state and private universities. English departments were circling their wagons, so to speak, in a series of defensive maneuvers, reshaping and re-articulating traditional British and American canons using literary-philosophical, gender, and ethnicity based theories (“theory” the only texts in translation remaining on many reading lists, most of them translated from French, a few from German and Russian). Yet even the most renowned theorists from the elite universities began to experience this translation crisis. At his visiting lectures, preeminent scholar and theorist Peter Brooks, of Yale University, regularly had to ask audiences if they had read any work at all by Balzac, an author Brooks uses extensively in his scholarship. In reply, fewer and fewer hands were being raised, and among young people almost none.
Over the years following this crisis, the literary landscape in the United States has been changing. Though there is no current figure for the number of books in translation to argue about from any follow-up white paper since the turn of the millennium, the situation has greatly improved, no doubt due to unprecedented efforts by the literary community as a whole—arts organizations such as the NEA and PEN increasing their support and fellowships for translation; private foundations, most notably the Lannan, but others, too, making significant new grants to nonprofit publishers; many sponsored prizes and awards from journals began to include translation; academic organizations such as the MLA and AWP increased their inclusion of translators and translation panels at their conferences; and several tier one universities, such as Columbia and UC Irvine, launched centers for translation. Whereas fifteen years ago, it was tough to find more than one or two new books in translation on any mainstream publisher’s seasonal list, these days we can note an increased investment in world literature by most major houses: Knopf, Pantheon, Picador, Viking-Penguin, FSG, on and on; and there are excellent new nonprofits, such as Archipelago and Zephyr, publishing translated books almost exclusively; plus we see redoubled commitments to translations by the more established smaller houses, such as New Directions and Graywolf, among many others. But even more significant to renewed interest in translated books has been the growth and influence of the creative writing programs (academics have long complained about this as “the creative writing industry”). Even while it was being marginalized in other disciplines, literature in translation continued to thrive and find a home in workshops and classes for writers. And these writers, in turn, have been spreading the global good news.