We need more novelists and poets to be translators, writes Stephen Henighan in the April Quill & Quire (article not available online). While he’s addressing mainly his Canadian audience, his observations certainly pertain south of the border: Multilingualism, as he makes clear, used to be part and parcel of a thriving literary culture.
In the 19th century, many Europeans would have read in both their native language and in French, while in times previous, a working knowledge of Latin and Greek predominated among the literati. More recently, translators have acted as aesthetic gatekeepers, spurring affection for Russian literature in the 1930s and for French existentialism in the 1950s and ‘60s.
These days, however, as Henighan points out, two of the most “internationalized cultures—the Anglo-American and the Muslim-Arabic—have the planet’s lowest rates of translation activity,” a claim that lends itself to our image of East-West misapprehension.
Though such socio-politics are central to the argument in favor of translating literature, Henighan emphasizes the creativity associated with multilingualism. He mentions, for two examples, the work of Jorge Luis Borges and Isabel Allende. Both honed their idiosyncrasies through the study and translation of languages foreign to them. Translation is therefore vital not only for the health of communication between cultures, but also for the renovation of literary style.