New points of view found in translation

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For the past few years, translations have been creeping into the forefront of Australia's literary landscape. Translated books made a showing at top literary prizes. This year, Behrouz Boochani's No Friend but the Mountains, translated with Omid Tofighian, won the Victorian Prize for Literature and the Victorian Premier's Prize for Nonfiction. In 2018, The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Shokoofeh Azar (translated by Adrien Kijek), was shortlisted for the Stella Prize. You can walk into the crime section of most bookshops and see a healthy amount of Scandinavian noir.

The Enlightenment of the Greengage Tree, by Shokoofeh Azar (translated by Adrien Kijek)In terms of publishing numbers, however, translations in English take up a tiny portion of what is on the bookshelves. It's called the three per cent problem, coming from a Bowker study that only three per cent of US books available for sale were translations. There's a lack of reliable statistics and consensus, but most predominately English-speaking countries have a low literary translation output, with Australia faring poorly.

Of that tiny percentage, it's estimated that only 30 per cent of translations are books written by women. Like other books by women, this problem is then exacerbated by the fact that books by women routinely get less promotion in stores, fewer awards and less coverage in the media, as well as facing gender bias. And like with other parts of the publishing industry, books by marginalised and/or non-European writers can be often similarly overlooked.

Translations, in general, have so much to offer. Translations have a knack for defamiliarising English and how we think language and storytelling works. It's there in the assured transcendence and brutality of Han Kang's book of short stories Human Acts, translated by Deborah Smith, when she describes the 'silenced corpses' on the floor of a gymnasium. It's present in the lingering sentences in Valeria Luiselli's essay collection Sidewalks, translated by Christina McSweeney, placing concepts of philosophy and space and language from various cultures side by side and then letting the new ideas formed wander out of one essay, waiting to be picked up again in another one.

Or Clarice Lispector, whose works are considered classics in the Portugese-speaking world, but is only now getting her due with English-speaking audience. In her novel The Hour of the Star, translated by Benjamin Moser, she stuns readers with beautiful and strange writing like, 'the toothache that runs through this story has given me a sharp stab in the middle of our mouth'.

Reading translations also exposes readers to literary movements and times in history of which English-speaking readers might not otherwise have much knowledge. Eileen Chang's works are sharply drawn considerations of character and relationships between men and women in China. Most of her work isn't overtly political, but the backdrop of her novella Lust, Caution still simmers with the tension of the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong in the 1940s.

And Sphinx by Anne Garréta (translated by Emma Ramadan) was the first novel by a female member of the Oulipo literary movement in English and is worth reading for its innovative approach to gender in storytelling. Not publishing or highlighting the translated writing of women limits a reader's potential access to literary and cultural knowledge, as well as good writing.

 

"Translations are bridges to the literature of the world, as well as being art in and of themselves. We should value them, and the different perspectives that they bring."

 

It's not just books by women that are pushing boundaries. Even with works that are already established in the Western canon written by men, translations from people who aren't white men can give readers a whole new perspective on classic works. The first ever translation by a woman of The Odyssey in English by Emily Wilson was published last year. And while I've read a few different translations of The Odyssey, none have ever so immediately caught me like the immediacy of Wilson's first line: 'Tell me about a complicated man'.

In her essay for The Guardian, Wilson writes that women not being able to take for granted that the classics are for them creates a 'productive sense of intimate alienation'. This is evident in her work, which emphasises the brutality of the slavery and misogyny that other translations skim over.

And while Rumi is 'America's favourite poet', the influences of Islam on his work were usually whitewashed by his many translators until Jawid Mojaddedi, a professor of Islamic studies, began translating his poetry.

There is already work being done to broaden the published translations we read. August is Women in Translation month, a movement started by the blogger Meytal Radzinski to correct the gender imbalance of translated works, which you can follow on Twitter. There are also several publishing houses like Two Lines Press, Deep Vellum, Transit Books, Archipelago Books, Europa Editions, Open Letter and And Other Stories that are dedicated to publishing translations.

Independent Australian publishers are also paving the way with exciting works of translation. Just recently, Brow Books published Bright by Duanwad Pimwana (translated by Mui Poopoksakul) in Australia, which is the first English translation of a novel by an Indonesian woman.

From a consumer perspective, the obvious answer to getting more translations from a variety of perspectives is to buy, borrow, review and recommend the translated work that already exists, which you can find here or here or here.

Translations are bridges to the literature of the world, as well as being art in and of themselves. We should value them, and the different perspectives that they bring. As Kate Briggs says in her longform essay This Little Art, 'We need translations. The world, the English-speaking world, needs translations. Clearly and urgently it does.' It's just up to us to find them.

 

 

Neve MahoneyNeve Mahoney is a student at RMIT university. She has also contributed to Australian Catholics and The Big Issue.

Topic tags: Neve Mahoney, Behrouz Boochani, Shokoofeh Azar, Clarice Lispector

 

 

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Existing comments

Thank you Neve Mahoney for pointing out the importance of books in translation. We owe much to skilled translators. Without Jennifer Croft those of us who do not know Polish would not have the opportunity to read Olga Tokarczuk's "Flights", and I suppose the author would not have been able to win the Man Booker Prize. The translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones brought us the English version of Tokarczuk's wonderful novel "Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead." And then there is Anthea Bell, translator of Leonie Swann's "Glenkill: Ein Schafskrimi", which in English is known as "Three Bags Full: A Sheep Detective Story". The two authors have in common the application of academically educated minds to humorous analysis of life (Olga Tokaczuk - psychology, Leonie Swann - philosophy, psychology, English literature).
Janet | 07 August 2019


Thank you for these timely thoughts on an aspect of literature often neglected in this country. I don't know whether conditions for literary translators have improved since I was paid two dollars per page to translate a novella from the Russian for a university publishing house, but at the time, the remuneration didn't even cover the cost of the child care required so that I could work on the translation, so I had to abandon any notions I'd harboured of undertaking further literary translations, although the book in question actually sold well. As a reader and a writer, I've benefited immeasurably from having access to other literatures via translations.
Jena Woodhouse | 10 August 2019


Good article, but we need translated access to more immediate texts. Everybody’s afraid of China but hardly any of us, if there is anyone at all, can know from the Hansard-equivalent (if there is one) of the national Chinese parliament whether the Chinese are afraid of everybody, given that frequently-heard trope that the opposite of love isn’t hate but fear. So, while we’re banging on endlessly in our blogs and columns about China trying to get us, we ought to know if in their world, they’re endlessly banging on about us trying to get them. I suppose Australia’s Beijing equivalent of Kim Darroch is, hopefully never to be sprung by WikiLeaks or some tattletale, passing the lowdown on what the Chinese actually think to Morrison and Foreign Affairs Minister Payne but it would be nice if private citizens could also have translated access directly from the original source materials. After all, if we want to read the various Hansards, we can. And if the Chinese want to read them, they can too.
roy chen yee | 10 August 2019


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