Two Translation Talking Points
With the current climate and state of politics in our country today, reading books in translation is more important than ever. Looking south, writers from central and South America have a long history of writing in opposition to social and political events sprouting from totalitarian (usually military) governments, especially in the twentieth century.
Take the novel Zero by Brazilian writer Ignácio de Loyola Brandão (English version translated by Ellen Watson, published by Dalkey Archive Press, 2003). Originally finished in 1969 during the heart of the military dictatorship in Brazil, Zero was not published in Brazil until 1975 (with censorship of certain passages) and only after first being published and acclaimed in Italy a year earlier. It is a novel that portrays and denounces governmental violence by a military dictatorship “by using the metaphor of insanity to capture people’s frustration and sense of powerlessness after the harsh crackdown on all political activities after 1968.”
Scholar Elizabeth Ginway describes Zero as a “shocking and unflattering look at the social inequities between the rich and the poor during the so-called ‘economic miracle’” that took place in Brazil during that time. Ginway also explains that novels like Zero “written in Brazil under the dictatorship tend to use chronological fragmentation, thus becoming puzzles for the reader to solve.”* Reading translated books not only exposes different cultures and situations to a reader, it can also reveal to the reader a new way of thinking about current circumstances.
A recent article titled The Bolaño Effect: Latin American Literature in Translation written by Nathan McNamara at Lit Hub has a subtitle of “On the great and steady surge in translated titles.” In the second paragraph, McNamara claims “Despite the barriers often standing in the way of translation, over the past five years there has been an uncharacteristic surge in the translation of Latin American literature for English-speaking audiences.” Without providing specific numbers, I am somewhat dubious of that claim.
As McNamara acknowledges, less than 3% of books published in English each year are translations. That 3% figure has been holding steady for the last decade so does that really mean there is a surge in Latin American translated literature? Or is it more likely that the increasing number of translated books in English from Latin America is correlated with the increase in the total number of books published in English on an annual basis.
Rather than a surge, it feels as though Latin American writers have benefited from more and better publicity since Bolaño’s books have been published (and rightly so). The 2016 Best Translated Book Award for fiction went to Mexico’s Yuri Herrera (as translated by Lisa Dillman) and for poetry to Brazil’s Angélica Freitas (as translated by Hilary Kaplan) and the 2016 PEN Translation Prize went to Brazil’s Clarice Lispector (as translated by Katrina Dodson). All excellent choices and well-deserved but not proof that there has been a surge in translated Latin American literature.
I do agree with McNamara’s other point that Bolaño’s books in English have helped pull publishers out of the “magical realism” groove and instead focus on Latin American modernists and realists. I also agree with him that “There’s a lot of important Latin American literature in translation that publishers are taking chances on right now. Now it’s our job to read it.”
*All Ginway quotes from her chapter in the book The Brazil Reader; History, Culture, Politics edited by Robert M. Levine, John J. Crocitti.