The Homogenizing Force of Translation

- by Lucas Lyndes

I’m late to the ball, but there was a series of articles a little while ago on translation and the homogenization of international literature that I wanted to comment on here.

Burton Pike initially sparked some debate with his article “Cultural Homogeneity and the Future of Literary Translation” at Publishing Perspectives, in which he concludes that “[a] creeping homogenization is developing in prose fiction, a kind of generic international content and style that transcends national borders. A broad horizontal culture seems to be replacing vertical national cultures.”

Pike laments the effects of this trend on the translator’s work, asking what happens “[…] if writers and readers no longer think that the surface of a literary text conceals layered depths that the translator must labor to transmit?  What if translation is no longer thought of as an art but as piece-work?” However, several responses to this article, including one by Edward Nawotka, also on Publishing Perspectives, and a nice overview of the discussion on the By the Firelight blog, suggest that this homogenization may be due in part to translation itself. For example, Nawotka cites Kazuo Ishiguro’s change in style as an attempt to “ease the burden on his translators,” i.e., make it easier for them to render into another language not only his texts but the culture underlying these texts.

At Three Percent, Chad Post writes that:

“…what’s always interested me […] is the way that authors around the world ape current trends in Anglo-American fiction in hopes of getting their work translated into English. That sounds a bit dismissive and damning, but I remember talking with editors in Germany a dozen years ago and having someone remark, ‘[Germans] used to write those experimental novels, now we write like Americans!’”

Based on my experience reading Spanish, I wouldn’t hesitate to agree with this assessment. Perhaps time has just weeded out the lightweights, but I think if you consider what were then the up-and-coming English-language authors as recently as the 1960s (say, Donald Barthelme, William H. Gass, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Coover, etc.) and compare them with Spanish-language authors from roughly the same period (Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa), you’re looking at not only two distinct “lineages,” but writers who were very different from others writing in the same language. If we view the literary traditions of each language or country as separate lineages, I think we’ve seen a fair amount of blending between these lineages going on in recent years. The “generic international content and style” referred to by Pike is prevalent enough that it’s something I bear in mind when picking up a book by a young Spanish-language author with whom I’m unfamiliar. It may be that I’m reading the wrong things, but it would take some effort to compile a list of younger authors remotely comparable in terms of quality to the writers I mentioned above. There’s no shortage, on the other hand, of bland, middle-of-the-road writing that could have come from almost any country in the world in the last thirty years or so. Is it possible that this may be due in part to the very act of translation?

In and of itself, the intercultural exchange enabled by translation is far from a bad thing. The problem comes when it’s laughably lopsided and when the cultural influences being “swapped” are so often stiflingly homogenized and mediocre.

First, let’s consider this lopsidedness. Looking at the amount of books translated into English from other languages versus the translations into Spanish one sees on the bookstore shelves in Latin America and Spain, it is painfully clear that English speakers are much less on the receiving end of this exchange than other cultures around the world. In a recent guest editorial at Publishing Perspectives, Joanna Zgadzaj and Nancy Roberts of Stork Press note that translations make up roughly 2.5% and 3% of all literary fiction published in the U.K. and U.S., respectively, while in Spain, this percentage is 24%, and 46% in Poland!

Then there is the issue of the homogenization of literature. This process clearly didn’t start yesterday, but I think there are a few factors that have increasingly come into play since the last half of the twentieth century and sped things up.

Then again, what hasn’t been sped up?

In the interest of writing a blog post instead of a novel-length screed, I’ll limit myself to mentioning just a couple factors here that I think were missing from the articles I mentioned above. Firstly, there’s the influence of writing workshops, still a controversial topic in terms of whether or not they have had a homogenizing effect on contemporary writing. This obviously isn’t a black-and-white issue—there’s a lot of gray area. Some great writers have come through the workshop system, whether as professors or students. But if a considerable amount of writers in the U.S. are learning their craft from similar sources, and authors from other countries are looking to Americans for tips on what English-language publishers are interested in, then it’s not hard to see where the homogenization snowball starts rolling down bestseller hill.

It’s surely not a coincidence that publishers entered the equation in the final sentence of the last paragraph. Maybe workshops, academia, and writers aren’t all to blame? Indeed, I think it would be helpful to consider how much of the blame  publishers share in this situation (if we agree that such a situation even exists, and I personally think it does). Essentially, publishers are doing two things here that are feeding into this homogenization. The first has to do with the sorts of authors they publish in English, the ones who are being “aped,” as Chad Post says, by foreign writers. The second, and more detrimental, is that they are then taking the very foreign authors who have aped these publishers’ own English-language authors and translating them into English.

I know there are endless reasons why people might enjoy reading translations, but one of the most alluring aspects for me has always been their function as a window into an unfamiliar world, a place with another way of looking at things, where stuff just works in a different way. There’s plenty out there about how the U.S. has exported the worst parts of its culture to the rest of the world and people have lapped it up and now everything’s all the same, oh my god globalization makes we want to etc., etc., and much of it is written much more eloquently than I can, so let me just…

 …show you what the main square of the ancient Incan capital of Cusco looks like these days. However, across the square from that McDonald’s in Cusco is a restaurant serving traditional Peruvian dishes with organic ingredients (stay with me here), and much like this contrast, I suspect that each language’s literary scene has room enough for not only its Jonathan Franzens, but also writers who may be more heavily influenced by their own language’s classics. I can vouch for this in Spanish.

The problem, then, is that it’s only the Mexican or Serbian or Japanese J-Franz who’s getting translated. I can also vouch for this in Spanish. There is just so much amazing stuff out there, and yet English-language publishers get their “inside scoop” by looking to major awards given out by foreign-language publishers to their own house authors for the sole purpose of boosting sales. And that makes up the bulk of what gets translated into English.

Joanna Zgadzaj and Nancy Roberts offer a more nuanced explanation of what goes on in publishers’ minds when it comes to translations:

“Publishing a book in translation is expensive. You are lucky as a publisher if you get a translation grant which rarely covers 100% of the amount [the translation] is costing you […]. Chances are, if a publisher decides to take on a book written in a non-English language, the foreign author will be very well established with a few prizes under his/her belt to give the publisher a fighting chance of getting the title reviewed at all. […]

Now, let’s reverse that scenario and say we want to publish an unknown young foreign author who perhaps has not — yet — won any prizes in his/her country of origin, but has written a bloody good book. How are we going to convince a reviewer to give it a go if most of them get an instant headache when they can’t pronounce the author’s name? […] No reviews or publicity means no sales. […] As a publisher you will think very carefully next time a partially-translated manuscript lands on your desk.”

So the game is pretty much rigged against young, innovative authors getting translated. And they do exist, despite this homogenization of literature around the world; there are plenty of amazing authors capable of dialoguing with their peers from other countries and channeling this conversation into something unique, something fresh, something that is worth being translated because we don’t already have five of the same thing in English. This may not be immediately obvious looking at the slim pickings major publishers deign worthy of putting on the table, but there are presses out there who are fighting to change this. It’s a huge part of what drives us here at Ox and Pigeon, and we’re certainly not alone.

But the question remains: how do we overcome the costs and challenges associated with publishing works in translation in order to dilute this homogenization? This is where I think many people are overlooking the advantages offered by eBooks. Translations still come with their additional costs (the translator, for one), but digital formats provide incredible opportunities for rethinking how books, in translation or otherwise, are published and sold. For starters, we no longer have to depend on traditional distribution channels. Thankfully, people are starting to realize that this could mark a major change in the sorts of books that are being made available. With the support of readers, authors, and lovers of literature in general, there is a dedicated group of people out there who want to make sure that globalization is a two-way street, giving you access to all sorts of new things you didn’t even know existed but which will hopefully make your life just a tiny bit richer for having discovered them.