Notes from the Front Lines of Translation, or How Subcomandante Marcos Changed My Life

By Esther Allen

If we thought about literature in the same way we think about economics—and while that may seem horrifying, it’s also increasingly necessary —we’d notice immediately that there’s a tremendous global trade imbalance, as UNESCO’s Index Translationum attests. The English language exports its literature to the rest of the world’s languages, but imports very little. Meanwhile, the rest of the world’s languages import far more, and primarily from English.

This might at first appear to be an indication of Anglophone xenophobia or of a nefarious plan by Anglophone cultural imperialists. Neither of those suspicions is entirely without merit; however, it’s also relevant to note that much of the U.S. publishing industry is currently owned by a German corporation (Bertelsmann) and a French one (Hachette). That fact hasn’t done much to shift the translation statistics in the U.S. towards German or French.  It’s not because of political domination by the United States or Great Britain that China has been engaged in a tremendous push for English over the past two decades: there are estimated to be as many as 400 million English language learners in China alone. English is, for now, a global linguistic phenomenon the likes of which we haven’t seen before. Its current status as the most common second language everywhere on earth means that to be translated into English is to be read not only in the English-speaking countries but everywhere. Yet instead of being, for that reason, the language that translates most, English is the language that translates least.

Every time any author anywhere proudly alludes to the number of languages his or her work has been translated into (and who could blame an author for doing that?), the notion that translations come about because of the literary merit of the original is reinforced. The average reader in the English-speaking world probably feels justified in assuming that if something hasn’t been translated into English, that’s because it simply wasn’t good enough. I was once guilty of that assumption myself.

In 1989, while on a Fulbright in Mexico, I travelled to San Cristóbal de las Casas in the southern state of Chiapas. There I read Oficio de tinieblas, by Rosario Castellanos. Chiapas is a place unlike any other I’d ever been, and Castallenos’s novel brilliantly depicts its chilly mists and vivid colors, the unique syncretism of indigenous and Catholic traditions, the always uneasy relations between the Maya majority and the minority of mestizo or Spanish descent, the history of brutality and exploitation, of Maya by mestizo, of villagers by city folk, of women by men. When I told friends in the United States that they absolutely had to read it, I never imagined for a second that it might not have been translated into English. Oficio de tinieblas is a great classic of Mexican literature, hailed as such by Carlos Fuentes and many others, and routinely on the curriculum in Mexican schools; it has remained continually in print since its original publication in 1962. I was astonished to learn that no English translation existed and immediately became determined to make that happen.

I contacted Castellanos’s son and literary executor, Gabriel Guerra, and was thrilled when he responded enthusiastically. (I ignored his passing allusion to other U.S. translators who’d approached him about the novel over the years.) Brimming with enthusiasm, certain I could make this happen, I translated some sample chapters, wrote a précis of the novel, and began sending it out to editors.

Four years later, I’d almost given up. Somewhere in a file drawer I have a very fat folder full of rejection letters. The reasons varied: several editors noted, in dismay, that the author was dead – as if that alone eliminated any possibility that the work might be salable or of value or interest to readers. Even more astonishingly, some said that their publishing houses simply weren’t publishing any translations at all any more.  I’d learned that in the four decades since the novel was originally published, at least three other translators had attempted to get it published in English, with no success. There was a wall, a barrier, an impossible obstacle blocking the translation of this book. I began to think I was not going to be the one to overcome it.

Then suddenly everything changed.

The Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) burst into the world’s consciousness on January 1, 1994; wooden rifles in hand, they emerged from the Lacandón jungle in Chiapas to declare war on the Mexican government. U.S. journalists who went to Chiapas to cover the situation were repeatedly told by locals that such uprisings were nothing new in Chiapas and that if they wanted to understand what was going on, the best place to start was Rosario Castellanos’s Oficio de tinieblas. Subcomandante Marcos, the mysterious former philosophy professor who quickly achieved global renown as the principle spokesperson of the EZLN, at last made Castellanos’s novel seem “relevant” to the English-speaking world. Shortly thereafter, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded me a translation fellowship for the novel. And finally I found a publisher, though not one from the United States. Marsilio, a major Italian house based in Venice, had established a short-lived U.S. operation around that time, and it was Marsilio that finally brought the novel out in English. The New Yorker greeted the book’s publication with a full-length review. The Book of Lamentations (as I titled it) then came out in paperback as a Penguin Modern Classic and remains in print today.

Since then, I’ve had varying success bringing other books I loved into English. In 1997, Javier Marías’s A Heart So White (Corazón tan blanco) won the Dublin IMPAC award (the English language’s richest literary award) as the best book published in English that year. You might imagine this would make him irresistible to publishers in the U.S. and the U.K.  You’d be wrong. A year later, Marías’s  Negra espalda de tiempo was being turned down right and left. It “couldn’t sell here,” it was “too difficult for U.S. readers,” etc., etc. With considerable difficulty, I helped Marías finally find a publisher (New Directions). My translation, Dark Back of Time, first published in 2001, was reissued in paperback this year by—you guessed it—Penguin Modern Classics.

But the barriers remain very real. Translation is not for the fainthearted.

How many novels and works of poetry do you think were translated from Spanish into English and published in the United States last year? What would your guess be? In 1999, the National Endowment for the Arts did a groundbreaking study of literary translation and discovered that of the more than 100,000 books published in the U.S. that year, about 300 were translations of fiction or poetry from all languages. (The statistically-minded will note that this isn’t three percent —the oft-quoted figure — but one-third of one percent.) How has the situation changed since then? It depends on how you look at it. The invaluable website Three Percent, which since 2008 has been tracking all translations of fiction and poetry into English published in the United States, shows a total of 453 translations from all languages for 2012. That’s a rise of 50% from 1999, yes, but statistically an even smaller percentage of overall books published; nowadays, Bowker puts the total number of books published per year in the U.S. at well over 300,000.

Of those 453 books in translation to come out here in 2012, fifty-six were translated from Spanish.

That may not sound like a lot, but it makes Spanish one of the top three source languages for the year, alongside French and German. Eighteen of the books translated from Spanish were from Spain, sixteen from Argentina. Mexico had nine books, Chile four, Uruguay and Colombia three each, and Guatemala, Cuba and Venezuela two. When you think about the thriving literary and publishing sphere in each of those countries and their rich literary histories, it’s rather dismaying that even the most successful of the group had no more literary works published in the U.S. last year (and hence made available to readers across the globe) than you could count on your fingers and toes.

Among the exciting new initiatives that might finally make these figures change in a dramatic way, I would certainly number America Reads Spanish itself. Another intriguing venture is Hispabooks, a brand-new literary press based in Madrid that publishes writers from Spain in English translation. This isn’t the first time that publishers outside the English-speaking world, in despair over the reluctance of Anglophone publishers to bring out their titles, have simply started commissioning and publishing their own translations. Hispabooks is unique, however, in having recruited some of the top translators in the English-speaking world, thus ensuring that their translations are of good caliber. It remains to be seen how successful their distribution operation will be. Meantime, no less a global powerhouse than Amazon.com has entered the translation business, with the 2010 launch of AmazonCrossing , an imprint devoted to bringing books across language barriers. By 2013, AmazonCrossing was the second-largest publisher of fiction and poetry in translation in the United States.  Amazon has decided they’re going to make money publishing translations, and they seem to be doing so. Should the rest of the U.S. publishing industry decide that Amazon is onto something, things could change in a big way. Perhaps one day modern classics, or even merely good or somewhat pleasing or interesting works of literature that offer a new and refreshing perspective, will easily find their way into English and thereby out to audiences across the globe without needing help from Subcomandante Marcos.