By Yana Zlochistaya
On a recent Monday night, I found myself, as I so often do, deep in the belly of the Gardner Main Stacks Library. This time, I was in search of the English translation of a Russian poem called “Dedicated to a Chair” by Joseph Brodsky, which I wanted to analyze for an essay. Brodsky’s name is a prominent one in literary circles. Born in the Soviet Union and forced to move to the United States in 1972 after running afoul of Soviet authorities, he received the Nobel Prize in Literature in the late 1980s and served as the United States Poet Laureate in 1991. And yet, in spite of his fame both back in Russia and in the U.S., no matter how thoroughly I scoured the endless shelves of the Gardner Library, no matter how many Google Scholar searches I did, the translation I was looking for just didn’t seem to exist. In fact, most of the translations of Brodsky’s poetry that I was able to find were done by the man himself after his immigration. Which makes me wonder: if even Brodsky’s work hasn’t been translated in its entirety, what chance do lesser-known or non-European writers have at reaching English-speaking audiences?
This is a problem I’ve started to encounter with alarming frequency as I’ve begun to work with an increasing number of foreign texts. The Anglophone world, it seems, is notoriously behind when it comes to translation. According to The Economist, just three percent of books published in the United States and England were originally written in a different language, with that number falling to about one percent in the fiction category.
The reasons behind these dismal statistics are complicated. The ubiquity of the English language certainly plays a role: we are so accustomed to being the de facto lingua franca that accommodating others isn’t something that we’re used to having to do. Another contributing factor seems to be that “American exceptionalism,” which governs so much of our political discourse, has also bled into our conceptions of literature. Separated by an ocean from the countries that have historically most influenced our literary tradition, it’s harder to view our accomplishments in context, and the result is an ethnocentrism that’s probably based more on ignorance than on willful spite.
There’s also the issue of economics. Many large publishing companies hesitate to print translations because they worry that there’s just no market for them. And, with the prominent exception of certain writers like Umberto Eco, Haruki Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, and Stieg Larsson, they’re not wrong: Books in translation rarely enter the American mainstream, usually becoming relegated to extremely niche markets (such as students of Comparative Literature). This leads to a seemingly endless cycle where publishing companies don’t translate foreign literature because there’s no American audience for it, and the American audience doesn’t read foreign literature because publishing companies don’t translate it.
There doesn’t seem to be an easy solution to this dilemma. Perhaps we should follow the advice of Marx, who believed that books should be translated immediately and published simultaneously in different countries. Perhaps, more realistically, we could begin by constructing a more globally-oriented school curriculum: at least mix some Molière in with the usual Shakespeare, make the connection between the Harlem Renaissance and the Negritude movement, or trace the way in which motifs in familiar Western fairy tales made their way from the Middle East and Asia. A more highly developed awareness of the international nature of literature at a young age might lead to continued interest later in life.
Right now, developing that interest seems especially vital. After all, books remain one of the key ways in which we develop new understandings of the world. By keeping our eyes fixed inward, we limit our own capacities and deny the full humanity of others. Every untranslated piece, even if it’s one about a chair, leaves an empty space in our understanding of the vast variety of human experience.