The Essence of Literature in Translation, and Why We Should Care

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Image: Hicham Benohoud, Untitled, Oil on Canvas, 2013 Courtesy of the artist and Galerie D’Art L’Atelier 21

When I was a Sophomore in high school, I became acutely aware of the power of translation after reading Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, rendered into English by the renowned translator of Latin American literature Gregory Rabassa. I was absolutely fascinated by the way the story shape-shifted, invented its own language to tell a dazzling, generational epic, as well as kept the musicality and poetics of Garcia Marquez’s original Spanish prose in tact. I’d read the big names: Chekhov, Flaubert, Homer, but I’d never been so exasperatingly floored by a piece of translated literature. The novel imparted a new understanding to me of how to live in the world, and how to make my own art. To have a new perspective of another place is undeniably special, and something not all of us are conscious of as we read. It’s an incredible privilege to have one’s world view expanded, and to let go of a parochial approach to the literature we read, the languages we speak, and the perspectives we hold. To put it simply, there is so much more out there than the traditional Western Canon. Twain, Hemingway, Dickens: I’m talkin’ to you.

Fast forward to March 7, 2016. Susan Harris, editorial director of the literary website Words Without Borders, came to speak at Bennington’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action as part of the Bennington Translates series. Words Without Borders works to give visibility to the writings of marginalized languages and lesser known countries by translating and publishing them for English-speaking readers, not so much to persuade her audience that translation is important, but more so to explain the very reasons why it’s important: to shed light on underexposed cultures and communities that need our attention and our awareness.

Words Without Borders was founded in 2002, and publishes a monthly online collection of translated works from around the world, both poetry and prose. WWB also published its first collection of stories, poems, and excerpts in print in 2006, Literature from The Axis of Evil: Writing from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Other Enemy Nations. The book uses the term “axis of evil,” first coined by the Bush Administration when describing countries and governments that were accused of terrorist activity and seeking weapons of mass destruction. WWB effectively flips the term, using it, instead, as an act of humanitarianism, exposing the fear behind it and destroying our predisposed notion of these nations and the people they are home to. As Harris pointed out during her lecture at Bennington, “Everything we read is mediated, at some point, between source and delivery. The greater the distance to the primary source, the greater the power those mediators have to shape and distort information.”

Harris spoke in detail about the disparity between primary source and audience at Bennington’s CAPA Symposium, and the effect it can have on our understanding of cultures and countries foreign to us. What’s more, “when that information is further compromised by outside perspectives, often perpetuating earlier misconceptions and generalizations, and when both language and geographical barriers preclude direct investigation, we can end up with simplistic abstractions that lead to lack of understanding, fear, and worse. To combat this situation, WWB works to promote cultural understanding through translation, publication, and promotion of the finest contemporary international literature. Our publications and programs open doors to readers of English around the world, to the multiplicity of viewpoints, the richness of experience, and literary perspective on world events offered by writers in other languages.”

Harris’ process for choosing which works for which countries to publish is, in reality, quite fluid. The main reason being that the website’s monthly publications are heavily thematic, coming from a specific country, culture, or language. However, the undeniable fact about the world is that there will always be something new happening, constantly shifting and redefining itself, largely unplanned and spontaneous. And so the Words Without Borders team has, Harris told us, “a certain moral obligation to look at real responses to events and to do things for our readers that print publications simply cannot do within their restrictions.” In the case of an issue Harris published on the Arab Spring, she “had planned an issue of Algerian literature from the 3 languages of Algeria, and then the dominoes started falling around the end of January 2011. [She] started realizing that there was no way, regardless of what happened in the Middle East, that [WWB] could publish an issue of Algerian Lit and pretend that nothing had changed. One of the pieces [she] was most proud of was written by the Algerian Bualem Sansal. He still lives in Algeria, but he’s been persecuted, and has won many awards for his writing. He wrote a piece which was published in Le Monde on June 15th, and it was on [WWB’s] front page in English on July 1st. That’s the sort of immediacy that an online magazine can provide.” Harris continued to explain that a “few of the pieces that we published were directly related to the events themselves, but in a way what we provided was much more useful because they gave context to an English language audience to understand what prompted the uprising.”

One of Harris’ favorite pieces that WWB has published is a poem by the Egyptian poet Abdel-Moneim Ramadan. The poem, titled “Funeral for Walt Whitman,” evokes the Syrian poet Adonis’ “Funeral for New York,” which is “itself a dialogue with Lorca’s poetry and its appeal to Whitman in the face of the decline of the city,” Harris said. Ramadan’s poem goes even further, however, placing Whitman in direct conversation “not only with Lorca, but with any number of classical Arabic figures, and a clutch of early modernist and contemporary Iraqi poets.” The poem blends literary trends and cultures around the world, from the past and present.

Perhaps this, in itself, is the essence and accessibility of translation. The fact that a young poet from a culture foreign to the U.S. uses Walt Whitman as an archetype for his own exploration of poetic traditions embodies the notion that literary culture evolves over time. “Each new generation both extends and expands its literary traditions,” said Harris, “and that cross-fertilization of languages, traditions, and writings, enhances and benefits all sides. And the English translation in turn, brings this fresh juxtaposition to readers who will discover not only Ramadan, but the writers and works that inform his work.” This is the power, and importance, of literature in translation, Harris went on to say. Translation can be an act of alternative nation-building: “When other traditions are made accessible to us, they can only enrich our own. And when other cultures, other countries, other lives come to us through this most personal and revealing of forms, we can truly mature and enrich each other and become true citizens of the world.”

By Jesse Osborne ‘19

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