A former collaborator contacted me this winter to resume some unfinished Arabic translation work we’d started years ago, and I’m happily back at the task, and back to thinking about how absolutely critical this kind of work is for American writers to engage in. The reasons are manifold and, I usually assume, quite apparent. However, if I’ve learned anything about human understanding, it’s that nothing is ever apparent to everyone, and (since there are always exceptions, at least when limits of scope are allowed) in those rare instances when something might actually be apparent to everyone in a given audience, it never hurts to repeat that potentially apparent thing, so I will outline some of the more salient reasons why I believe the writing and reading of literary translation is of utmost importance for Americans right now:
America has become dangerously insular, due to the increasingly unilateral nature of it dialogue with the rest of the world. For example, among others, I want to know what the elders in the tribal areas of Afghanistan are thinking; I want to know what the Ainu are thinking; I want to know what the Russians are thinking; what they’re thinking not just in the streets, but in their dreams. In other words, I want to know what they really think. We can only get at these nuances in literature, in the language writers feel most comfortable using, which is usually their native tongue. How does the heart speak? In what language does beloved speak to beloved? (Come to think of it, the rest of the world probably doesn’t know a lot of this stuff about Americans either, because we make little collective effort to support or disseminate our own literature abroad… or at home, for that matter. What they get is simply what sells, which is usually little more than the latest variation of a tired old theme, full of thread-bare stereotypes… but this is the subject for another essay).
We need more translation because we can really only meet people from other cultures in intimate conversation or in literary translation, where parties strive with all their might to understand, with sympathy and compassion, because we meet at a point of mutual love: language. I would also add that Americans are particularly in need to another benefit of translation: the tempering of the ego. We need to submit ourselves to the service of others more often than we do. We need to remember that Whitman’s “Song of Myself” wasn’t really about himself.