At this year’s Guadalajara International Book Fair, I took part in a roundtable discussion about the role of translation in the internationalization of literary texts, along with David Unger, a Guatemalan author who writes in English and a translator from Spanish into English; Philip Boehm, an American playwright and translator from German and Polish into English; and Carina Brandt, a Swedish literary agent based in Barcelona who represents authors from Scandinavia, Spain, and elsewhere. Mercedes Guhl, a Colombian translator from German and English into Spanish, acted as the moderator.
Our discussion ranged from the purely mechanical to the more creative. We began with the people involved in the process of translation and their roles—authors, translators, the original publisher and the acquiring publisher, literary agents, and (where relevant) cultural institutions that promote and support translations from one language into another—underscoring the importance of translators as bridge builders, not just via the translation of the work itself, but also as intermediaries, and sometimes even as “scouts” to find projects and promote them to editors in their target language.
It is not enough to just know Spanish, for example, in order to translate works from Argentina and Cuba—one needs an understanding of culture for a translation to be successful.
Carina mentioned some of the particularities involved with promoting authors from Sweden; lots of Swedes are published abroad but Swedish itself doesn’t travel (the way Spanish, the language of our discussion, or English do). As a result, it’s important to have samples of works written in less-common languages like Swedish translated into English or other languages to present to editors who can’t read the original. It’s also essential for agents to have a network of reliable and trusted translators, so that when rights are sold, they can also recommend possible translators. (Full disclosure: I have done sample translations for the Brandt New Agency for some of their Spanish-language authors.) Carina said that part of her role as agent is knowing what languages each editor speaks, if they have translators or trusted readers in different languages to write reader’s reports on books she might submit to them, as well as when and where to work with sub-agents who may have a deeper understanding of the culture and people involved.
Image: Philip Boehm, Mercedes Guhl, David Unger, Carina Brandt, and Lawrence Schimel. Photo by Sandra Kingery.
The discussion quickly moved from the logistics to the importance of translators in transmitting not just the literature but also the culture. As often happens when translators get together, we gave examples of interesting translation dilemmas or quirks. For instance, Philip mentioned the challenges of working on Kafka’s Letters to Milena, as Czech lacks the female possessive pronoun “her.” We all agreed on the importance of a translator knowing both the target language and culture as well as the source language and culture; it is not enough to just know Spanish, for example, in order to translate works from Argentina and Cuba—one needs an understanding of culture for a translation to be successful.
David spoke about how writers today often feel desperate to have their work appear in English, as a language which can lead to many others, but said that it was a bad idea for authors to self-translate—they should let a translator work on it, something all on the panel agreed with. The panel also discussed various instances of “backseat driving” by authors who spoke some English and didn’t understand a translator’s decision to adapt idioms or dialogue to match the tone and culture of the target language, rather than using a literal translation of the original, which would, in fact, be less faithful or true for the reader in translation.
We also discussed the difference between self-translation and writing in an adopted language, and the ways in which one’s mother tongue might infuse the writing in the latter case. Carina shared that many of her authors living in exile write in English, but their writing is permeated by nostalgia, especially in the domestic sphere, where the smell or taste of one’s mother’s cooking, for instance, is an integral part of a core identity, and so often the terms associated with those details are left untranslated from the mother tongue.
I briefly mentioned my experiences as a writer creating in both English and Spanish, and the difficulties occasioned in promoting those different works to international readers. For instance, it was not until an English sample of my most recent work of fiction written in Spanish (Una barba para dos, a collection of one hundred erotic microfiction pieces, three of which were published in WWB, translated by Sandra Kingery) was available that editors began to buy rights for other territories. The collection is being published in Slovenia this month, translated directly from the Spanish, but the acquiring editor was only able to consider it based on the English sample.
The panel also discussed the ways in which writing for an international audience has changed how some authors write. Especially with the boom in translated thrillers and crime novels, some authors are writing a mix of literature and armchair tourism, navigating a high-wire act of not boring readers in their own language but explaining enough for nonlocals to experience and enjoy their countries. We also spoke about the effects of international success on translations and the translation process. In the case of huge international bestsellers, translators often have to begin translating works before they are finished being written—or edited—which can create problems. International success (particularly where film studios are involved) sometimes also results in impoverished translations because of trademarks, as in the case of the Harry Potter books, where the film studios trademarked the names of characters and even the magical sweets in the book and often forbade that these puns or plays on words be adapted or translated as a result.
With the boom in translated thrillers and crime novels, some authors are writing a mix of literature and armchair tourism.
As we approached the end of our conversation, David shared his experience of having his most recent novel translated into Arabic—an alphabet he cannot even read—and the process of working with his editor and translator to handle certain issues that arose (sexual content, for instance) around the Arabic edition. He also shared some of the feedback he received from readers he met at the Sharjah Book Fair, where women in particular were appreciative of precisely those passages which portray a woman in control of her own sexuality.
These final anecdotes illuminated precisely that while we may speak or write in languages that bear no similarity, via our literature—made accessible through the work of translators—we learn how universal (not merely international) our human experiences are.