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Published: Mon Jun 17 2019
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Destrución de los Huricanes en Guatemala / Hurricane Destruction in Guatemala (detail), 2010, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
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Losing the Lifeblood of World Literature

Good translation is, almost literally, the lifeblood of world literature: without it, literature cannot circulate among cultures and countries. I’m afraid that blood is draining out of this country, leaving a desiccated all-American body of literature…with occasional British infusions.

There’s an interesting website devoted to literary translation called Three Percent, named after the percentage of translated books among those published in the United States each year when Chad Post began the site. For 2016 his database reported only 633 newly translated works of fiction and poetry; that’s less than one percent of the 300,000 new books that, according to UNESCO, we publish annually in the U.S.

Reading translations of foreign literature is obviously a good way of understanding people in other countries and, sometimes, admiring the art they produce. So is learning foreign languages. Unfortunately, we don’t do either very much.

Even basic knowledge of foreign languages has always been pretty rare in our dominant culture, and it’s getting rarer all the time. Recently, the GAO reported that one out of four Foreign Service officers doesn’t meet the foreign language proficiency requirement necessary to do the job well. For years now, the Modern Language Association has deplored a geometric progression in the loss of foreign language programs and shrinking enrollment in those that still exist. Smith College, where I taught for many years, vaunts “Global Learning” and has many year-abroad programs where students can learn foreign languages and be exposed to foreign cultures in the best possible way. But its language departments have been cut, enrollments in them are shrinking, and the students’ French, for example, has become so poor that the program of courses they take in Paris has had to be modified.

The problem extends to translation. Last year, AGNI posted my blog post “Listening: The Ethics of Translation,” a defense of literary translation and its ethic, the obligation to “hear” what a text in another language is telling us rather than substitute our own voice. In reality, translators of literature have another ethical obligation that comes first. It seems so simple it’s hardly worth mentioning, but it really isn’t: before translating, they must have total command of the language they translate from. Everyone knows you can listen all you like to Turkish, and unless you know the language you’ll have absolutely no idea of what is being said. Simple! But not everyone realizes you can “listen” all you like to a poem or novel in a language you think you know and you’ll have no idea of what makes the text literature—the play of sound and denotation and connotation—unless you’re deeply familiar with both the language and the culture that produced the work. Google Translate won’t help. Languages are complex inventions with vast resources. They take time to learn. And knowing the culture means more than knowing the literature; it means knowing the country’s history, climate, traditions, and the material culture of everyday life.

On the simplest level, ignorance of the culture can lead to hilarious mistranslations. To take an extreme case, the French translator of an American detective novel once rendered “He took a stretch limo” as Il prit un citron pressé avec beaucoup d’eau (“He had a lemonade with lots of water”); clearly the translator had no idea what a stretch limo was, but extrapolated from the French, where un café allongé (lengthened or stretched) means an espresso with twice the usual water. (Note that this was a published translation; of course no one checked for accuracy.) More commonly, such ignorance leads to impoverished, flat translations when the original may have been round and rich. An acquaintance of mine was enamored of some of Baudelaire’s prose poems and began translating them. His French was minimal, but that was okay, he said, because he asked a friend, a French chemist (!), to tell him what words meant. At least he asked. But the result, as you may imagine, was not inspiring.

So few Americans, among those born into primarily English-speaking families, know a foreign language that those who’ve learned a tiny sliver of one sometimes think they’re experts. Years ago, a small press asked me to review, in manuscript, a new translation of a collection of Henri Michaux’s prose poems. The first thing that struck my eye was La cave aux saucissons (literally, a cellar for storing salami) translated as “The Sausage Cave.” Did the translator think a French wine marked Mis en bouteille dans nos caves was bottled in their caves? The manuscript was blotched all over with simple mistakes like that. No reason to discuss tone, level of voice or other fine points; there were none. And the “translator” wrote an essay on translating Michaux!

This kind of arrogance and the dominant culture’s lack of interest in other countries’ languages and literatures has a long history. It echoes the idea of American exceptionalism and the old nativist Know-Nothing Party of the nineteenth century. It has an uncomfortably familiar ring in a country now governed by an America First or, in fact, America Only president who hates and despises immigrants. But of course Donald Trump is not the cause of what I’ve described above. Perhaps, however, he is a symptom.

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David Ball’s latest translation is Léon Werth, Deposition 1940–1944: A Secret Diary of Life in Vichy France, which Ball also edited (Oxford University Press, 2018). His translation of Jean Guéhenno, Diary of the Dark Years: 1940–1944 (OUP, 2014), won the French-American Foundation’s translation prize in nonfiction, and his Darkness Moves: An Henri Michaux Anthology 1927–1984 (University of California Press, 1997) won the Modern Language Association’s prize for outstanding literary translation. Coma Crossing: The Collected Poems of Roger Gilbert-Lecomte is forthcoming, as is Marco Koskas’s novel Bande de Français, about a bunch of young French friends in Tel Aviv, from AmazonCrossing. Ball’s own poetry has appeared in half a dozen chapbooks. He is professor emeritus of French and comparative literature at Smith College. (updated 6/2019)

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