Word for Word: Losing out on access to translations
Jaume Cabré: a Catalan literary giant whose work is hardly available in English
I recently attended a translation slam. Two literary translators were given the same text (a smidgen of Proust) to work on. We voyeurs in the audience were supplied with the original and the translators’ versions. A riveting discussion followed about translation choices.
What a fascinating experience, and how difficult and time-consuming is the work of literary translators. They don’t just translate words but make choices about tone and register, about how faithful to remain to the original or whether to update references. There was a long discussion about whether to render a fiacre as a cab or a hackney car. They are often underpaid and undervalued; the good ones are highly skilled and creative. Most supplement their income with more pedestrian translation or other work.
The event on Discover Research Day was supported by the Centre for Literary Translation, a partnership between TCD’s school of languages, literatures and cultural studies and Ireland Literature Exchange. The latter gives grants to foreign publishers to commission translations of work by Irish writers. As a result, speakers of 50 languages have read Irish writing in translation. They do invaluable work with shrinking funds. But for us to get access to work not written in English we are dependent on the few English-language publishers that specialise in this work, bookshops or esuppliers to stock them and reviewers and marketers to draw attention to them.
The book section of Le Monde recently devoted two pages to a writer I had never heard of. My appetite was whetted by the fascinating interview, and when I read the superlative review of his most recent novel, Jo Confesso, I went in search of his work. The problem is, he is Catalan, and hardly any of his work has been translated into English. Jaume Cabré, the winner of many literary prizes, is a prolific writer. He has been translated into French, Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Norwegian, Greek, Slovenian, Croatian, Hugarian, Romanian, Albanian and more. But only one book made it into English, nine years after first publication.
European bookshops are full of books translated from English, but the traffic seems much lighter in the other direction. I gather that in Britain the appetite for work in translation is increasing, however, which is heartening. Few Irish publishers have chosen to commission translations. Economies of scale may make it difficult.
Reading well-translated fiction from other countries can often do far more than politics and diplomacy to increase our understanding of what makes others tick.