The Brooklyn Quarterly #2: Translation
From the time our magazine was only an idea, we wanted to devote an issue to translation, broadly conceived to include the literary, cultural, political, and social dimensions of language in practice and in interpretation. Although mass media and the Internet now routinely extend texts beyond national and linguistic boundaries, readers are still forced to confront the unfamiliar that remains after literal translation, or that exists in English-language texts representing multiple cultures. Rather than soliciting and publishing solely works of literature in translation, we chose to make this issue an opportunity to use translation—the process of making meaning portable from one context to another—as a lens to examine questions about power and identity, storytelling and social exchange, artistic expression, and cultural exploration.
Perhaps no other piece in the issue embodies our broad conceptual approach to translation more than the excerpt from the debut English translation of Alberto Fuguet’s Missing by translator Ezra Fitz. Fuguet’s account of his uncle’s disappearance evokes the tension between seamless transmission and lack of transferability of language, emotional connection, and cultural meaning across borders. As Stefania Heim, poet and co-founder of Circumference: Poetry in Translation, told us in an interview, “I think the most pressing cultural issues around translation currently circle around questions of context and placement.” We agree, and offer this issue to our readers as an invitation—issued in the spirit of Edith Grossman’s statement in Why Translation Matters (2010) that “translation is crucial to our sense of ourselves as serious readers”—to take a closer look at where those circles overlap and intersect.
As much as translation poses philosophical and abstract questions about the transfer of meaning, its more practical ramifications arise when we crunch the numbers. Who publishes translations—and how and why—is a critical topic of discussion. In his essay for this issue, Will Evans, founder of Deep Vellum Publishing in Dallas, breaks down the “three percent” problem (the tiny fraction of translations being published in America in comparison to publishing volume overall), while Idra Novey addresses these numbers in relation to the VIDA count in her contribution to our roundtable on cultural translation. In spite of the “three percent” problem, the efforts of innovative publishers of literary translations (to name a few: Archipelago, Ugly Duckling Presse, New Directions and Open Letter Books, also host of the blog “Three Percent”) breathe ever more life into what Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky describe in their introduction to In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means (2013) as this “age of translation” in America and beyond.
Elsewhere in their introduction, from which we borrow the title of this editorial note, Allen and Bernofsky write:
Thinking about translation means thinking about the gaps in our literature and our ability to communicate, revealed by comparison with the capacities of other languages and traditions of thought. It also means thinking about the gaps in our political and cultural discourses, asking ourselves what and who has been left out.
Embracing the “age of translation” means meeting the challenge to examine these myriad gaps and shadow spaces, which is what the writers in this issue have done. Some of them, like TBQ senior editor Elissa Lerner, probe the geographical, linguistic, and psychological gaps between cultures in conflict and in collaboration. Others, like translator Karen Emmerich, novelist Dina Nayeri, and poet Idra Novey, the respondents in our cultural translation roundtable, explore how the process of translation changes, and is itself constrained by, the communication of ideas across languages and cultures. These writers sought to explore their own work and experience through the looking glass of Marlon James’s question (expressed in our first issue’s “Art and Argument” roundtable) about recent fiction about immigrants and immigration: “What if the immigrant never finds a new place?” With this roundtable, and indeed, with this issue as a whole, we have asked writers and translators working today to share their thoughts and experiences of literary and cultural translation as a space that is perhaps simultaneously an “old” and a “new” place for the writer and the reader.