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How Translations Find New Reader Bases

When his turn came around to be interviewed for the famous Art of Fiction interviews, Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe was asked what audience he writes for, suggesting that it might be a local Igbo audience; a national Nigerian audience; or a foreign American audience. He answered in the following manner:

I have tried to describe my position in terms of circles, standing there in the middle. These circles contain the audiences that get to hear my story. The closest circle is the one closest to my home in Igboland, because the material I am using is their material. But unless I’m writing in the Igbo language, I use a language developed elsewhere, which is English. That affects the way I write…if you can, visualize a large number of ever-widening circles, including all, like Yeats’s widening gyre. As more and more people are incorporated in this network, they will get different levels of meaning out of the story, depending on what they already know, or what they suspect. These circles go on indefinitely to include, ultimately, the whole world. I have become more aware of this as my books become more widely known (Brooks & Achebe, 1994).

Figure 1: Nigerian author Chinua Achebe

Achebe, to be sure, was in a particular position of influence as he wrote in a major language –English– from the perspective of a minor country from which English did not originate. Had he never been translated into other languages, he would have already had enough circles to influence. Naturally, however, Achebe does include translation as indicated by his reference to the whole world. And his metaphor of circles –this author has the concentric, clockwise circles of Zen Buddhism in mind– applies just as readily to authors in translation as it does to major international languages.

Provinces Bordering on Silence

George Steiner’s famous quote referencing translation –about “provinces bordering on silence” (Wynne, 2018)– is more than just a nugget out of the stream. Separated from neighboring language zones, other cultures become opaque and inaccessible.

Figure 2: Circles, akin to the circular nature of these zen lines, represent the distance between an author and their various audiences.

Translation does not always form a perfect connection between cultures, however. This can be seen by observing the two closest alternate-language cultural spheres to the United States that have a strong literary production: Mexico and Quebec, or French Canada. While it is popular and in vogue nowadays to argue in favor of the arbitrariness of national borders, that argument comes to a full stop where language is concerned. True, both authors exist in translation – The Devil is Loose!, to give one example of Maillet in translation (Maillet, 1986), and News From The Empire, to give an example of del Paso in translation (Del Paso, 2009). Both authors are prominent enough –or important enough– in their languages’ literary traditions to have won the greatest international prizes, the Prix Goncourt and Cervantes Prize respectively. Their prominence not only in the US but in the North American Anglosphere, however, does not even compare to the influence of Hispanic writers writing in English –such as Sandra Cisneros– or the palpable influence of Jack Kerouac, whose native language was French and had a French Canadian origin (though to be fair, French Canada was rarely a literary interest of Kerouac’s).

While this reality sheds light on another common present-day phenomenon –countless writers around the world forsaking their native language to write in English, irrespective of their native culture’s richness– it is not always the case that translations are marginalized. Few Italian-American writers, for instance, have rivaled the recent success of Elena Ferrante, excepting The Godfather author Mario Puzo. And if one sets aside important Irish modernists like Joyce and Beckett, Irish literature in English, despite Ireland’s huge literary production and it being an offshoot of modern Europe’s most ancient literary tradition, rarely achieves prominence and is at times even marginal compared to literature in translation. Subtract Joyce, Beckett, Yeats and a few others and the average Anglo-American would struggle to list an Irish writer more famous than Ferrante.

Figure 3: the late Mexican author Fernando del Paso

This inconsistency can be explained in a number of manners, most of them originating from cultural biases and misconceptions. There is, however, one unifying element: finding a new reader base, or audience of readers. Authors from other cultures will rarely find success in America if its literature does not somehow give the reader information about America or appeal to certain universal traits. The immediate reader bases that awaited Cisneros and Kerouac, therefore, has not reciprocated in a cultural sense to authors like Maillet and Del Paso.

Audiences: Lost Or Found

Pinpointing a new audience is tricky for a translator and is often why major publishers do not prioritize them, apart from long-established classics. As mentioned in previous articles, this leads to the domestication of translations or the categorization of certain authors into pre-established genres, such as the aforementioned choice of The Pied Piper over The Ratcatcher to make Viktor Dyk’s modernist classic of alienation relatable through the familiarity of an aesthetically-different Grimm Brothers fairy tale. While there are thankfully translation presses devoted to publishing translated literature even when brimming with “otherness,” this comes more from devotion to the art of translation than future sales. As wonderful as this devotion is, translation presses publish them with no guarantee that those translations will find an audience among English or American readers, apart from a small but growing base eager to read translations in general. They are, so to say, throwing the kids into the swimming pool to see if they can swim.

Figure 4: Translation for artistry, while noble, is like placing boys who don't know how to swim on the post seen in this vintage photo

Even so, the history of translation has shown that serious mistakes have, at times, been made. Mistakes that can be avoided and, when not avoided, have sabotaged the potential of discovery. A previously mentioned author, Polish master Henryk Sienkiewicz, is a classic example.

By every metric, his Trilogia deserves recognition in the canon of the world’s greatest literature: it was globally popular in the early 20th century in a manner comparable only to Eugene Sue’s Les Mysteres de Paris in the 1840’s (Lednicki, 1960, p. 13). It also had a profound effect on Poland comparable only to Homer’s effect on the West (Krzyżanowski, 1990, p. 49). On top of that, it is a masterful expression of the historical novel and won Sienkiewicz the Nobel Prize in 1905. The fact that none of this has preserved the name of Sienkiewicz in the Anglo-American household has led both scholars and the Polish diaspora alike to conclude that there is simply no audience for Sienkiewicz in the Anglosphere (Krzyżanowski, 1990, p. 58), apart from Quo Vadis? among a Christian audience. Some translators and scholars have, for some reason, even expressed that view with an “ivory tower” arrogance that is largely unwarranted given the actual history of how Sienkiewicz’s Trilogia was denied an audience in the Anglo world while very similar novels, like War and Peace, became classics despite also originating from the “wrong side” of Europe (Krzyżanowski, 1990).

Figure 5: Sienkiewicz with English translator Jeremiah Curtin

Sienkiewicz, a Polish subject of the Russian Empire, was not protected by copyright laws in his time due to the Russian Empire not signing the Bern Convention of 1886 (Krzyżanowski, 1990, p. 18). As a result, translators not only in English but every other language translated the Trilogia in whatever way they pleased, leaving Sienkiewicz with very little in terms of royalties apart from the occasional generosity of his publishers (Krzyżanowski, 1990, p. 18). In the English world’s case the translator, Jeremiah Curtin, was a greedy scammer who pestered the author for a long period of time so as to gain exclusive translation rights, eventually succeeding –most likely due to the author’s frustration about a situation he couldn’t control– and living well off all the royalties until his death (Krzyżanowski, 1990, pp. 19-25). Curtin only spoke rudimentary Polish, translating not from the original Polish but second-hand from a censored Russian translation; this resulted in a translation that, at best, could be called 2-dimensional and wooden. On top of that, Curtin, motivated by a warped Russophilic perspective, wrote an anti-Polish introduction to the Trilogia despite the huge success it had among both Russian readers and critics; an introduction that, among other things, claimed that the Poles “have always been deficient in collective wisdom” (Krzyżanowski, 1990, p. 23). This translation remained the sole access to Sienkiewicz’s Trilogia until 1991-92, when the new Kuniczak translations finally rectified that abhorrent situation.

One does not need a doctoral degree in literature or translation studies to recognize that any novel from any culture would be doomed to obscurity in such conditions. Even so, a dearth of attention may also be necessary to firmly establish the reputation of a foreign writer in the Anglosphere, a writer who comes off as a phenomenon as much as a talented artist. This may explain why Tolstoy’s War and Peace, a novel similar enough to the trilogy in terms of genre, scope and historicity, succeeded where Sienkiewicz did not. While Constance Garnett is remembered today as the grand dame of early Russian literature translators –and one whose achievements have rarely, if ever, been surpassed singlehandedly– she was only the latest in her time to translate War and Peace, preceded not only by at least six translators but translators who, in two instances, also translated Tolstoy’s collected works (Moser, 1988, p. 434). While all of Sienkiewicz’s novels and many of his short stories were translated, his works did not receive this type of attention in the Anglosphere.

To Find or Convert an Audience

To be sure, there are writers whose novels, once translated into English, found a waiting audience. It seems that in most cases, however, an audience must somehow be converted –and not superficially so– if a foreign author has any chance of becoming a part of the Anglo-American canon of literary greats. For as Albanian author Ismail Kadare once said:

Figure 6: Albanian author Ismail Kadare

“Great literature is a very small family. It’s actually a family of ‘dictators’ and ‘tyrants’. It crushes the millions of second rate [literature]. It’s a merciless clan, almost anti-democratic. Professionals know this. But it is very dangerous to explain this to other people” (Guppy & Kadare, 1998).

In a single instance, Kadare –whose work from the Albanian into English is usually second-hand via French– summarizes so many facets of the human literary experience, including why passionate academics and bookworms alike so often exclaim: ‘but why isn’t this amazing writer world famous and well-known by everybody?’ It also explains the aforementioned arrogance of some academics and translators towards Sienkiewicz: in their eyes, he is ignorantly viewed as one of the ‘millions of second rate.’ The effect this observation has had on literature says a lot about audience as much as the great literature itself. Just as dictators and tyrants cultivate large segments of die-hard supporters from their population, so do the greatest authors convert their audiences. Translators are one of the several viziers who are in the service of the greatest literature. But it depends on who the translator “enables” them to “conquer.” Every now and then, the Napoleonic ambition desired by Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov is realized, as with Dostoyevsky himself.

In most cases, however –and this is, regrettably, true for both Antonine Maillet and Fernando del Paso– their novels are warlords who seldom expand beyond the reach of their own personal fiefs. Even when they make use of an interpreter.

Bibliographical References

Brooks, J., & Achebe, C. (1994). The Art of Fiction No. 139.

Del Paso, F. (2009). News From The Empire (GonzálezA., Trans.). Dalkey Archive Press.

Guppy, S., & Kadare, I. (1998). The Art of Fiction No. 153.

Krzyżanowski, J. R. (1990). The Trilogy Companion (J. R. Krzyżanowski, Ed.). Hippocrene Books.

Lednicki, W. (1960). Henryk Sienkiewicz: a Retrospective Synthesis. Mouton & Co.

Maillet, A. (1986). The Devil is Loose! (P. Stratford, Trans.). Lester and Orpen Dennys Limited.

Moser, C. A. (1988). Translation: The Achievement of Constance Garnett. The American Scholar, 57(3), 431–438.

Wynne, F. (2018). Found in Translation. Head of Zeus Ltd.

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