Cultural Imperialism

Posted on June 30, 2010


In reading Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters I could not escape the feeling that she is preaching to the converted. I’m one of the converted. I’ve been translating poetry since I was in college (so that dates back now almost 40 years). As a sermon to the believer, Grossman’s one is engrossing (sorry). She paints a nice picture of how she started on her road to translating (also in college) and how she sustains her motivation to continue translating (when any reasonable person would move on to a more lucrative occupation). She also provides insights into her technique and summarizes two theoretical approaches to translation (along the way giving Nabokov some justifiable knocks for his Onegin). So far, so good.

Grossman cites the astounding facts that only 2 to 3% of the books published in the U.S. and U.K. are literary translations from another language; whereas in Western Europe or Latin America from 25 to 40% of the books are translations from another language. Sounds like both provincialism and cultural imperialism are at work here. English-speakers do not need to know about others; we export our culture and tend to want to make a global hegemony of English. It’s amazing how little curious of others we are.

But these facts, as well as approaches to the craft of translation, are familiar — all too familiar — with anyone working in, or with, translation. As part of a Yale University Press series, “Why X Matters,” I entered the book looking for a cohesive argument to sway more readers, publishers, reviewers and academics in the United States to want to publish and read more translations. I was waiting for Grossman to directly answer these questions she raised in her introduction: “Why… does translation matter to readers? Why does it not matter to most publishers and book reviewers? What is its relevance to the literary tradition in any number of languages?”

If the reader and publisher and reviewer is also a translator, Grossman answers the questions. But if they are not, there are no answers. There’s no speculation on how to get many trade publishers to expand their lists to provide more translations. There’s no exploration on how to attract more readers for work translated from other languages. There’s no reflection on why we want to export our culture but not import others’. No rumination on creating a balanced trade in translation. And I really wanted to know why translation should matter to those not directly engaged in its profession.

Is this a measure of xenophobia? Is the Ugly American more than a stereotype? Do we truly want to learn about, and from, others? Or are we truly so self-obsessed?

I learned more about writing poetry through translating Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Bertrand, Eluard, Breton, Montale and Ungaretti in my 20s than through anything else. There’s no better way of learning how to construct a poem than by taking a poem in another language apart word by word and rebuilding it in another language. The most valuable workshop I took at Boston University was Rodolfo Cardona’s translation workshop, where the likes of William Arrowsmith would show up each week with their tales of “how-I-did-it.” (Now this workshop is ably carried on by Roseanna Warren.) I’m also shocked that my major — comparative lit — no longer exists at my alma mater and that most graduate programs over the last generation have dropped their second language requirements.

To wrap up (for now), Grossman makes a point that more people would read translations if they were reviewed more. Point taken (& easier said than done), but it gets a bit muddied when she opines that a valid (or accurate) review of a translation must take into account the merits of the translation. Now that would require that the reviewer have a good reading knowledge of the original language, read both the translation and the original, and possibly other (or all other) translations as well (if they exist). That’s asking a lot of a reviewer, who is also not getting paid much better than a translator would. It’s also not taking into account the fact that the potential average reader does not care so much about the subtleties of translation as to what the book is about in determining whether they might want to read it. Nothing would turn off a reader than engaging in a translation critique.