Is Lack of Translated Literature an ‘Iron Curtain’?

Category: Culture, Language



In the United States and Britain, just 2-3% of books published each year are translations, compared to nearly 35% in Latin America and Western Europe.

It’s this “dearth of translated literature” that is constructing “a new kind of iron curtain” around the native English-speaking world, argues translator Edith Grossman in a carefully thought-out piece in Foreign Policy magazine.

This is more than just a shame, Grossman writes. It’s downright dangerous for those who value the spread of knowledge.

English often serves as the “linguistic bridge” for the translation of a book into a number of Asian and African languages. For example, the Chinese market would be completely closed off to a book written in Spanish unless it was first translated into English. So, limiting translation ultimately “turns off the spigot” that flows not just to us but to the rest of the world, she says.

Taking it even further, you can say that this “dearth” of translation could be a threat to civil liberties, because the free exchange of literary ideas, insights, and intuitions that translation facilitates is central to a free society. If we — knowingly or unknowingly — limit access to information and ideas, we create the possibility of tyranny and dictatorship.

And on a diplomatic level, choosing to block off access to the body of literature of a large and significant portion of the world creates a willfull ignorance of other cultures, movements, and societies — which could have dreadful political consequences, she warns.

words without bordersBut it’s not all doom and gloom. A while back I discovered a wonderful organization called Words Without Borders, that translates, publishes, and promotes contemporary international literature, to “open doors for readers of English around the world to the multiplicity of viewpoints, richness of experience, and literary perspective on world events offered by writers in other languages.”

They release a monthly online magazine with 8-10 new works by international writers, with past authors including Nobel Prize winners J.M.G Le Clézio, Herta Müller, Mahmoud Darwish, Etgar Keret, Per Petterson, Fadhil Al-Azzawi, W.G. Sebald, and Ma Jian. To date they’ve published well over a thousand pieces from 114 countries and 80 languages!

Words Without Borders also partners with publishing houses to release print anthologies, and will be working directly with high schools and colleges to provide content and resources to expand curricula to incorporate contemporary international literature, hoping to instill curiosity about other cultures and help students become better world citizens. Inspired? Here’s how you can get involved.

A bit of background on Edith Grossman:

Edith Grossman is an award-winning American translator specializing in English versions of Spanish language books. Her version of “Don Quixote” a few years back “caused a sensation in the shadowy realm of newly translated classics,” and prompted Harold Bloom to proclaim her the Glenn Gould of translators. Her latest work, “Why Translation Matters” was recently reviewed by The New York Times.




Photo Attribution: Ryan Hyde