Loss in Translation

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 &
(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
, and
frequently publish translations.

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

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