Loss in Translation

America?s view of the world is fogged by a shortage of literary works from other cultures

| May / June 2003

Ask most Americans what life is like for a person in, say, Indonesia, and you?re likely to be met with a blank stare. Sure, they might be able to rattle off a few details from a recent National Geographic article or offer some thoughts about the ongoing skirmish with East Timor, but when it comes to the inner life of a typical Indonesian?her hopes and fears, her stories?most of us are simply at a loss. And, unfortunately, reveals Aviya Kushner in the literary magazine Poets & Writers (Nov./Dec. 2002), even browsing the local bookstore for a novel or memoirs that might provide a glimpse of Indonesians? lives won?t turn up much.

The problem is that few literary works from other cultures are translated into English. As Kushner reports, translations constitute only 2 percent of all literary publishing in the United States. And, unless a book is written in a European language like French or German, chances are it will never get translated.

?We live in a tremendous isolationist bubble,? says Jim Kates, co-director of the Brookline, Massachusetts?based Zephyr Press, which publishes several books in translation each year. The lack of books from other cultures can make us myopic, he notes. ?I think of what we?d do if we had only 10 percent of our vision?we?d run to an eye doctor; we?d want to see more of the world. Literary translation adds to our vision. It?s corrective lenses.?

National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) literature director Cliff Becker tells Kushner that the situation stands as a ?national crisis? because literary translations represent an important opportunity to get to know our neighbors in the world.

A number of American organizations are making efforts to increase the demand for books from other cultures, Kushner reports. San Francisco?s Center for Art in Translation, for example, puts out Two Lines, an annual journal devoted exclusively to translations, and sponsors elementary-school programs that teach the benefits of bilingualism. And, despite a 40 percent budget cut, the NEA in the last two years has nearly doubled the amount of grant money earmarked for translation projects. Also, a variety of literary journals like AGNI, Partisan Review, and Verse frequently publish translations.

?Still,? Kushner cautions, despite these and other efforts ?the art of literary translation in America remains mostly in the shadows.?