Just foreign enough

Twenty-five percent of books published each year in Spain are translations; compare that to less than four percent in the USA. Of course, with a rising generation of writers from bilingual and immigrant backgrounds, other cultures are still coming to us and (with shifts in fashion) being read and lauded. But it’s not the same thing as true translation, this essayist (herself bilingual) writes.

“So many writers nowadays come from different cultures, and I wonder if that compensates for the lack of interest in other cultures,” says ­Moscow-­born novelist Olga Grushin, author of The Dream Life of Sukhanov (2006), who writes in English and now lives near Washington, D.C. “In a way, if Americans will not go to other cultures, then other cultures will have to come here and speak about themselves.”

But from the first translation of the Bible onward, what Grushin describes was always the translator’s role: to go to another culture and bring back what matters. It was sort of like immigration with a ­built-­in return trip. A good translator must create and inhabit a place that does not fully exist—a land between languages—because it is impossible to reproduce another language exactly. A translator must bring over what is most important, as accurately as ­possible.

A bilingual writer, on the other hand, might omit the dirty laundry, inside jokes, or other intimate markers of a culture, such as a scandalous reference to a prime minister’s ­sexual ­harassment travails that matter only to the small number of residents of his country, or a joke on, say, Chairman Mao’s appearance. A novelist is more interested in story than in accuracy, but most translators think about exactness, and try to honor it, in their ­way.

Now, sadly, we have forgotten what it is to live between languages, to have translators who inhabit the space between tongues. We prefer to read of a Bosnian immigrant in New York instead of a Bosnian man in Sarajevo, written by a Bosnian. This way, at least we can recognize New ­York.


from “McCulture,” by Aviya Kushner, The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2009 :: via NYTimes.com Ideas Blog

Originally published at culture-making.com.

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