Thursday, June 10, 2004

Department of Rushing to Judgment

As many times as I've said it before, I have to say it again: Google is amazing.

I'm taking part in a translation symposium next Tuesday night at a place called the Culture Project, on Bleecker Street in Manhattan. The symposium is being held in conjunction with the U.S. premiere of a play called Night Sings Its Songs, by the Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse, and consists of two "sessions." The description of Session B, the one I'm sitting in on, is as follows:

"Here we will discuss the role and the responsibility of the translator. In this climate of increasing political and cultural isolation, how has the role of the translator changed? What is the responsibility of the translator? What is the responsibility of the theatrical community to bring translations to light in America today?"

Of course these sorts of academically posed questions always seem silly at first glance. But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of interesting points to be made in relation to them.

My main concern was, as always, how much work would it entail for me; i.e., would I have to prepare something in advance? Happily, I learned, I do not, and so I gladly accepted.

Now, I have no idea what the other panelists will be talking about — Marie, the organizer, told me their names, but of course I recognized none of them — but from what we talked about on the phone I thought it might be useful at some point to bring up just how few translations we get in this country each year.

I remembered a tiff, post-9/11, regarding how many, or rather how few, books are translated into Arabic each year, and a response from Edward Said pointing out how even *fewer* books are translated into English each year. (No suprise to those of us who work in the field.)

Well, I remembered wrong. Or not exactly. But the point is, all I did was Google the words "edward said number of books translated into arabic" and right away, the third link I got was this one, from what appears to be a blog titled Language Hat.

Lo and behold, a posting from Nov. 26, 2002, contains a letter that appeared in the November 2002 issue of Harper's magazine from Esther Allen, who is a translator and serves as chair of the PEN American Center's Translation Committee. She wrote the following:

In his reply to Edward Said in the September Letters section, Paul Kennedy alludes to the worrisome news about the cultural stagnation of the Arab world that U.S. pundits have been clucking their tongues over all summer: according to a recent United Nations Development Programme report, the entire Arab world, with a population of 280 million, translates only about 330 books per year.

Gratifying as it has been to see so many of our nation's spokespeople in agreement that the number of translations is a key indicator of a region's cultural vibrancy, I can't help noting, at the same time, a certain grim hilarity. Here in the United States, at the cosmopolitan heart of the universe, with a population of 285 million and a publishing industry that churns out well over 100,000 books per year, we publish — well, what do you know — about 330 books in translation per year. (That figure excludes only technical and scientific treatises.)

The PEN Translation Committee receives about 175 to 225 submissions each year for its PEN Book-of-the-Month-Club Translation Prize, and they actively seek out every translation published in the country. Annotated Books Received, a publication of the American Literary Translators Association, lists about 400 books per year, including a grand total of thirteen books translated from Arabic in the last four years. "Literary" translation, I hasten to add, refers in this context not only to fiction and poetry but to history, journalism, biography, criticism, every category of book written for a general audience, and several categories — e.g., literary theory, philosophy — that are not.

This has been the case for decades; if there ever was a Golden Age of Translation in the United States of America, no one seems to know when it occurred. Yet the trend has never given rise to a UNDP report or any general voicings of dismay in the columns of the national print media. But now that we seem to be reaching such a stirring consensus on the importance of translation as an indicator of cultural well-being, I, for one, am very curious to see what our leaders will do to combat the lamentable isolation and stagnation in which we are foundering.

So my memory was a little off-track, but thanks to Google, it was no problem setting it straight.

And, oh yes: We are foundering in lamentable isolation and stagnation. So rush ye not into judgment of the seemingly translation-deprived Arabic-speaking world.