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The National Book Awards Haul Translators Out of Obscurity - The Atlantic
"In 2018, American literature no longer means literature written by Americans, for Americans, about America."

"Some of the first stories you remember reading or hearing read aloud were probably translations, though chances are you didn’t realize it. “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? That was from the Danish. “Sleeping Beauty”? French. One Thousand and One Nights? Arabic. “Hansel and Gretel”? German. “Pinocchio”? Italian. “Cinderella”? French—or, depending how far you back you want to go, German, Italian, or even Greek. As you grew up, if you read The Swiss Family Robinson or The Count of Monte Cristo, did you notice who translated it?

Not so long ago, it was rare for a translator’s name to appear on a book’s title page, let alone a cover, or for a review of a foreign novel to mention its translator. With a handful of exceptions (Robert Fitzgerald’s Aeneid, anyone’s Proust), if a book originated in a language other than English, that fact was downplayed. Behind this disappearing act lay an assumption that readers would recoil from a book if they realized it was translated, fearing it would be “tricky or complicated or inaccessible,” as Samantha Schnee, the founding editor of the translation journal Words Without Borders, put it.

This is changing. In the span of about 15 years, foreign provenance, once treated almost like a guilty secret, has become a source of allure. As blockbusters from foreign lands invaded American best-seller charts in the first decade of the 21st century—Suite Française, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—independent and nonprofit presses that specialized in translated literature sprang up from coast to coast; among them Archipelago Books (2003), Europa Editions (2005), Open Letter (2008), New Vessel Press (2012), and Restless Books (2013) in New York; Deep Vellum (2013) in Texas; and Transit Books (2015) in California. On November 14, the National Book Foundation, recognizing this shift in relevance, will award a Translated Literature prize—the first category added to the National Book Awards in more than two decades.

Lisa Lucas, the foundation’s executive director, sees the prize as “a lens. It’s a spotlight … It’s not about a distillation of all the works that are meritorious; the point is that you’re celebrating.”

There are a few possible explanations for this metamorphosis from near-invisibility to celebration. One is that in the late-20th century, a craze arose for retranslating the classics. Critics, always fascinated by what’s difficult and eager to spot a trend, took note, raising the profile of translators in the process. Perhaps the most prominent in this cohort are Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, a husband-and-wife team who embarked in the 1980s on the audacious project of retranslating much of the Russian canon—which they are still doing, three decades on. Every time they let fly a new Slavic doorstop, a critical explosion ensues. Today the release of any new translation of a famous work—by Homer, Proust, Kafka, Flaubert—tends to elicit a passionate reaction from the literary elite, even if the translator is relatively unknown.

A complementary trend at the turn of the century heightened interest in the lived experience of people in or from other nations. A generation of American writers born outside of this country were coming of age: Chang-Rae Lee and Edwidge Danticat, Jhumpa Lahiri and Gary Shteyngart, Khaled Hosseini and Junot Díaz. In their books, they reached into other lands—Korea, Haiti, India, England, Russia, Afghanistan, and the Dominican Republic—braiding imported history, attitudes, and priorities into American narratives. Although they wrote in English, they were translating foreign cultures through their fiction. In the process, they created a flourishing literary hybrid that broadened domestic reading tastes.

Even as the identity of American fiction took on an international flavor, technological advances in machine translation demystified foreign languages for monolingual Americans, making the outside world more legible. Cellphones can translate street signs, notice boards, and menus into English (or German, or Chinese, or French) with the click of a button; internet translation engines can convert foreign-language news stories into readable English in seconds. Philipp Koehn, a computer scientist at Johns Hopkins University who wrote the book on machine translation (literally, it’s called Statistical Machine Translation), recalls that when he started out in this field, 20 years ago, “all that these machines produced was gibberish. We were amazed when something came out that you could almost read.” Now, however, “if you find a newspaper article in good languages—by which I mean the ones we have enough data on, like French or English—and run it through Google Translate, you actually have to look for errors.”"

"In 2018, American literature no longer means literature written by Americans, for Americans, about America. It means literature that, wherever it comes from, whatever nation it describes, American readers recognize as relevant to them, as familiar. Foreign is no longer foreign.

That said, the question of how “foreign” a translation should “feel” provokes fierce disagreement. When you open a translated novel from overseas, do you want to sense its author’s French, German, Swedish, Spanish, or Italian sensibility, even if that breaks the spell of your reading experience? Or do you want to feel as if the book has magically converted itself into flawless, easeful English, attuned to your own idiom? (This is called the “foreignization versus domestication” debate.) And should a translation hew closely to the language and structure of the original, or should it re-craft the language to appeal to the target audience? (This is the “faithfulness” question.) Hardly anyone agrees—not editors, not scholars, not translators, and not readers. This makes it difficult even for experts to reach a consensus on which translated new books by unfamiliar authors and translators should be singled out for praise. Another difficulty is that few have read the translated books in the original language, which means that most base their assessments on their opinion of the English, not knowing to what extent it reflects the urtext.

That’s why Lucas prefers to avoid using the word best when she discusses the prize contenders. “There are always going to be people who object to which books are chosen,” she says. “They’ll say, ‘This should have been on the long list, this should have been on the finalists list, this or that book should have won.’” To her mind, all the books win because the act of nominating them “generates energy, conversation, and critique.” The prize is not a competition, but an affirmation.

Collectively, the five titles on the National Book Foundation’s shortlist for the Translated Literature prize demonstrate the transformation and continuity of America’s investment in international voices. Three of the books come from two houses that formed only in the past 15 years—Archipelago, with Love, by Hanne Orstavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken; and Europa, with Disoriental, translated from the French by Tina Kover, and Trick, by Domenico Starnone, translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri. A fourth title, The Emissary, by Yoko Tawada, translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, comes from the venerable independent house New Directions. Only one of the books, Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from the Polish by Jennifer Croft, comes from one of New York’s “big five” houses (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster). It was published by Riverhead, a division of Penguin Random House.

Still, there is room for progress. All five of the shortlisted books feature the translator’s name on the title page, but only two put it on the cover. One of these, Trick, presumably does so because its translator, Lahiri, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, is better known in the United States than its author. Imagine that: reading for the translator."
2018  literature  translation  us  language  languages  chang-raelee  edwidgedanticat  jhumpalahiri  garyshteyngart  khaledhosseini  junotdíazphilippkoehn  lieslschillinger  machinetranslation  karloveknausgaard 
november 2018 by robertogreco
I’m just a working-class guy trying to take part in the conversation that all the smart people are having. What books should I read?
QUESTION (in part):

"I’m just a working-class guy trying to take part in the conversation that all the smart people are having. This brings me to my question: What books should I read? There are so many books out there worth reading, that I literally don’t know where to start."

ANSWER (in parts):

"We’re not on a ladder here. We’re on a web. Right now you’re experiencing a desire to become more aware of and sensitive to its other strands. That feeling you’re having is culture. Whatever feeds that, go with it. And never forget that well-educated people pretend to know on average at least two-thirds more books than they’ve actually read."

"Come up with a system of note-taking that you can use in your reading. It’s okay if it evolves. You can write in the margins, or keep a reading notebook (my preference) where you transcribe passages you like, with your own observations, and mark down the names of other, unfamiliar writers, books you’ve seen mentioned (Guy D. alone will give you a notebook full of these). Follow those notes to decide your next reading. That’s how you’ll create your own interior library. Now do that for the rest of your life and die knowing you’re still massively ignorant. (I wouldn’t trade it!)"

"Ignore all of this and read the next cool-looking book you see lying around. It’s not the where-you-start so much as the that-you-don’t-stop."

SEE ALSO: the books recommended

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books  reading  literacy  2013  advice  learning  lifelonglearning  canon  wisdom  ignorance  readinglists  lists  recommendations  curiosity  booklists  notetaking  notes  observations  education  religion  libraries  truth  howilearnedtoread  readingnotebooks  notebooks  howwelearn  culturalliteracy  culture  hierarchy  hierarchies  snobbery  class  learningnetworks  oldtimelearningnetworks  webs  cv  howweread  borges  film  movies  guydavenport  huntergracchus  myántonia  willacather  isakdinesen  maximiliannovak  robertpennwarren  edithwharton  denisjohnson  alberterskine  karloveknausgaard  jamesjoyce  hughkenner  richardellmann  stephengreenblatt  harukimurakami  shakespeare  vladimirnabokov 
march 2013 by robertogreco

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