In Other Words

A New Great Wall

Why the crisis in translation matters.

One of the truly great war correspondents, a monumental figure who reported from Afghanistan for 20 years and won almost every literary prize offered in Italy; a humanistic French-Tunisian scholar who has sought a middle way between Islam and secularism; an Eritrean writer whose epic saga of his country's troubled history subverts both official versions, the Ethiopian and the American. They are some of the most important voices in the world today, honored intellectuals in their own countries. You're not likely to have heard of Ettore Mo, Abdelwahab Meddeb, or Alemseged Tesfai, however, because they are rarely translated into English. In the English-speaking world, in fact, major publishing houses are inexplicably resistant to any kind of translated material at all.

The statistics are shocking in this age of so-called globalization: In the United States and Britain, only 2 to 3 percent of books published each year are translations, compared with almost 35 percent in Latin America and Western Europe. Horace Engdahl, then the secretary of the Swedish Academy, chided the United States in 2008 for its literary parochialism: "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature."

But this is no mere national embarrassment: The dearth of translated literature in the English-speaking world represents a new kind of iron curtain we have constructed around ourselves. We are choosing to block off access to the writing of a large and significant portion of the world, including movements and societies whose potentially dreadful political impact on us is made even more menacing by our general lack of familiarity with them. Our stubborn and willful ignorance could have -- and arguably, already has had -- dangerous consequences. The problem starts in the Anglophone publishing industry, where translated books are not only avoided but actively discouraged. They can be commercially successful (think of the cachet enjoyed in the United States by The Name of the Rose, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, or anything by Roberto Bolaño), and still most U.S. and British publishers resist the very idea of translation. Some years ago, a senior editor at a prestigious house told me that he could not even consider taking on another translation because he already had two on his list.

Publishers have their excuses, of course. A persistent but not very convincing explanation is that English-language readers are, for some reason, put off by translations. This is nothing but a publishing shibboleth that leads to a chicken-and-egg conundrum: Is a limited readership for translations the reason so few are published in the Anglophone world? Or is that readership limited because English-language publishers provide their readers with so few translations? Certainly, the number of readers of literature -- in any language -- is on the decline, and serious, dedicated editors face real difficulties bringing good books to the marketplace. But that is not the fault of translation. And ignoring literature in translation in no way helps solve the problem. On the contrary, we need to ask what we forfeit as readers and as a society if we lose access to translated literature by voluntarily reducing its presence in our community or quietly standing by as it is drastically and arbitrarily curtailed.

The crisis in translation does not hurt only English-speaking readers -- it affects everyone who cares about knowledge worldwide. For one, the English-language market is immense and generally located in areas where the population tends to be literate and prosperous enough to purchase books. Then, too, a truism has it that a body of work must be translated into English before a writer can even be considered for the Nobel Prize in literature because it is claimed, perhaps with reason, that ours is the only language all the judges read. Even more significant may be the fact that English often serves as the linguistic bridge for the translation of a book into a number of Asian and African languages. For a book written in Spanish to enter the enormous potential market of China, for example, it must often be translated into English first. By limiting English translation, we're turning off a spigot that flows not just to us but to the rest of the world as well.

Most important, we confront a hovering and constant threat to civil liberties as we reduce the number of translations we publish. The free exchange of literary ideas, insights, and intuitions -- a basic reciprocity of thought facilitated by the translation of works from other cultures -- is central to a free society. Dictators know this: They place tremendous importance on language, how it is used, to what end, and by whom. Imprisoned writers, banned books, censored media, restrictions on translations, even repeated attempts to abolish what are called "minority" languages are all clear indications that tyrannies take language, books, and access to information and ideas very seriously. Democracies have an obligation to take these matters even more seriously -- and at the moment, the English-speaking world is failing in that task.

It may well be that in the best of all possible worlds -- the one that predates the construction of the Tower of Babel -- all humans were able to communicate with all other humans and the function of translators was quite literally unthinkable. But here we are in a world whose shrinking store of languages comes to roughly 6,000, a world where isolationism and rampaging nationalism are on the rise and countries are beginning to erect actual as well as metaphorical walls around themselves. I do not believe I am overstating the case when I say that translation can be, for readers as well as writers, one of the ways past a menacing babble of incomprehensible tongues and closed frontiers into mutual comprehension. It is not a possibility we can safely turn our backs on.


In Other Words

Going Underground in Israel

A great Hebrew novelist tells the tale of a young boy with grandiose -- and confused -- aspirations to join the political sub-classes.

From The Life of Elyakum. Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen.


These are the facts: My mother had a Communist friend who was in the underground, as all Communists were in those years. Or so, at least, my mother told me, and all the residents of our neighborhood believed likewise. I myself was unclear on the matter, since I envisioned all undergrounds as dark, dank subterranean tunnels, dimly lit by torches. My imagination populated these undergrounds with gangs of people who had not shaved for weeks and months, women smoking nervously, and food remnants scattered in the corners (in particular, preserves and cheeses). This picture was wholly unsuited to my mother's friend, a woman who walked our streets openly, shopped at the grocery store, came in and out of our home, and even argued with my grandmother about the pact Molotov had signed with Hitler at the beginning of the war. Where, then, was this underground hiding?

To quiet my mind, I came up with the following excuse: As far as my mother and I were concerned, the underground was of no consequence. Ultimately, what did we care whether Sima (this was the woman's name) was a Communist or a Leftist Zionist Worker? But for the British, who ruled the country, Sima and her boyfriend (whose name was Yasha) were in the underground. And since the British -- like any regime of police, army, and detectives -- were complete idiots, they were incapable of seeing and comprehending what every infant on our street knew: namely, that Sima and Yasha were underground Communists.

This explanation, simple and naive as it may seem, holds true to this day in my view.

Upon hearing from my mother that I was unemployed, Sima was infuriated. She immediately spoke with Yasha. I imagined they would both come to our apartment, shower me with insults and curses, and accuse me of being an idle parasite living at another's expense and other things of which I blamed myself. But to my surprise, Yasha came to our home in the evening, put his hand on my shoulder, and declared to my mother: "This boy shall not be trampled upon by the wheels of the materialistic chariot! His blood shall not grease the spokes of the rampaging bourgeois!"

My mother began to sob. Words such as "blood" and "rampaging" had the power to reduce certain souls to a depressive state.

Yasha continued, moving his hand from my shoulder to my hair and caressing my head with vigorous affection: "This young man," he said, looking straight into my eyes, "is entitled to live and create, just as any other person is. This young man does not deserve to be worn down and corroded by the filthy mechanisms of capitalist society. The individual must give society all he is capable of, and society must give the individual all he needs. The proletariat has nothing to lose except its shackles..."

Here Yasha paused and I could hear the sound of the shackles plummeting in the dusk, tumbling down somewhere beneath our kitchen table. Mother ceased crying and looked at Yasha as in a dream. Only Grandmother peered at him over her reading glasses, suspended her mumblings momentarily (she was studying the weekly Torah portion in Yiddish), and said, "Yasha, you are lying."

"How so, Grandmother?" Yasha turned to her in astonishment.

"Because everything you say is a lie and a falsehood. Those who seek the truth will find it in the holy books." And she looked back to her page.

Yasha, recovering from the insult, spoke again, his hand never leaving my head: "This young man before us must assimilate within the circle of productivity and the war effort. I am taking him with me, tomorrow, to the desert."

"To the desert?" Mother was alarmed.

But I was not. At the time I believed the veil had been lifted from Sima and Yasha's underground. I believed they resided in the desert like the ancient Christians, lions sprawled at their feet and serpents squirming in the opening of the cave where they dwelled. Tomorrow, Yasha would take me to that desert and bring me to his sect. And although I was not enamored with Communism (progressive socialism, with slight concessions to the ruling class and an eye toward conquering power gradually and without bloodshed, appealed to me more in those days), I was willing, for romantic reasons -- and economic ones -- to try my luck at living in the desert underground.

For the next translation, click here.