Exploring Modern Magical Realism

i n d u s t r y   r e p o r t s

Translators: Magical Realism's necessary decryption experts

THERE CAN be no overview of world literature without acknowledging the diligent work of translators. Certainly, American readers, with their dependence upon English as the national language, would be far worse off were it not for the many translators who have helped bring new voices and visions within new linguistic borders.

Imagine, as well, the careers of Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende without the assistance of translations to broaden the reach of their stories. Sure, they'd still be amazing writers, and the world of readers able to access them would still be a large pond of consummate fans. But the ideas that each author (indeed, nearly every magical realist author with even a thin blade of political undercurrent to their work) put forth would not have been dispensed so broadly. And without the wide dissemination of those ideas, might not the world think differently? Behave differently?

For this is what literature deigns to be, a vehicle of awareness, leading to change, betterment. The power of story is undeniable, regardless whether we take our stories through spoken word, books, film or the stage. Human beings will always need story in order to unravel the mysteries of life.

Without translators, then, we all risk losing precious connectivity with the rest of humanity. The perspectives of native writers and immigrants, of so-called "hyphenated" Americans and mixed-race writers, of exiles and popular insiders, all contribute richly to world literature, but each must rely upon the accessibility of language to do their work.

Borrowing the basic Communications 101 model as an analogy, stories with excellent tellers but no audiences, as well as stories with no tellers and the largest audiences of all, can't help but fail. Stories can only connect us if all the parts of the model exist and are in working order.

That's the chief role of translation: to expand the communications model through the careful reiteration of language as a way to further link storytellers with their audiences, and vice versa.

Here's an example of that model when it works on multiple levels. Consider Asian writers Amy Tan and Tashi Dawa. Tan, the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants, writes in English. Dawa, a Tibetan author who grew up in China, writes in Chinese. Tan's work has been translated into several languages; Dawa's is now beginning to find his work translated into English (thank goodness).

If one were to read both of these authors' stories back to back, in the same language, they would find very few things in common between their stories aside from the language. The authors' landscapes, genders, political beliefs, position in the class hierarchy and a multitude of cultural influences practically guarantee their stories to be vastly different, one from another. However, when read back to back in the same language, both stories have the potential to raise the ceiling of their readers' awareness of the world (in this case, the broad definition of what it means to be Asian) in ways they might never have experienced otherwise.

Interestingly, Amy Tan and Tashi Dawa, both considered magical realist authors, cite foreign-born authors (Isabel Allende and Gabriel García Márquez, respectively) for their inspiration. How might either of these Asian authors have become different writers, had they not read and reveled in the translated works of their foreign counterparts?

It's impossible to say. What we can say is this: whole histories are wrapped up in our words—cultural, national, personal. Words are worlds. Stories are histories. For a large, diverse group of readers like, say, the American public, this sharing of worlds and widening of histories is not only personally enriching, but socially imperative: all we learn about the world beyond our own private bubbles must come from somewhere. We may travel, we may live in multiculturally dense areas, but no trip or neighborhood is going to supply us with every story. Neither, for that matter, can books. But at least literature can be sought out and pondered at will in the free world. Thanks to translators, we have the option and the access.

Now let us close this aperture a bit. What about people who don't live in the free world? Or those who live in smaller, less culturally diverse nations, who do not have a national language on the scale of, say, English (or Portuguese, or Chinese)? How do their writers move across this barrier to a larger audience? How do their readers learn about the larger world without translation? When these readers and writers live under a dictatorial thumb, does this not affect the access they have to translation?

Words are worlds. Stories are histories. What translators can do for readers and writers holds immense power—to bring awareness, to inspire action, to deliver change.

WE'D LIKE to train the translation spotlight now on a successful American effort to further the study and value of literary translation. The Center for the Art of Translation (CAT) has, as part of its logo, the suggestion of a pebble dropped into a calm pond, with the rings, naturally, spreading outward. Isn't this what translation is all about?

Established in the culturally diverse San Francisco Bay area, the Center evolved out of the internationally acclaimed publication, Two Lines: A Journal of Translation, which released its first annual edition in 1994. The Center expanded beyond the journal to include public readings of international literature as well as to provide academic outreach on the subject of the art of translation.

I recently purchased several back copies of Two Lines and was delighted to open the package to find five lovely journals filled with work that's truly from all around the world. Some of the native languages translated into English include Dutch, Polish, Czech, Japanese, Valencian Spanish, Persian, Abkhazian, French, Buru, German, Brazilian Portuguese and Haitian Creole.

What a treat! Side by side, the works appear in both their original languages (what lovely alphabets!) and their English counterparts. Each work (it could be an excerpt, a manifesto, a series of haiku, a folktale, a state document) is preceded by an introduction from the translator discussing the work in some relevant fashion. For instance, Chaumont Devin translated a number of Buru folktales in the Tracks edition of Two Lines (1995). Devin's discussion covered a full range of topics, from the type of written or oral materials that were available for translation to the way in which original Buru tales were performed ("sung as story poems containing more-or-less the same number of syllables per line") and how Devin managed to become a translator of Buru folklore without having been a trained linguist to begin with.

What Devin concludes in this useful and intriguing introduction lies at the heart of the importance of translation:

By recording these tales we are preserving an ancient and beautiful tongue,
and with it a picture of the reality that Buru once was. The tales bring to life
the fair fields, the blue mountains, and the ancient forests, and preserve
them in a way nothing else can. They describe for us the intimate details of
Buru thought, the cycles of Buru life, and ultimately the suffering, heartbreak
and triumph common to all of mankind.
It seems to me that the work being done at and for CAT is far and away one of the finest collective efforts being made to serve the long-range purpose of world literature. The Center now includes a successful bilingual education program, Poetry Inside Out (PIO), which serves public school students with translation endeavors. PIO aims to demonstrate the benefits of bilingualism to children early on, and to encourage language learning, reading and translation skills through activities. Student work is then anthologized or presented through public venues. Currently, PIO works predominantly with Latino students who are bilingual in Spanish, but the Center is at work on a pilot program to expand their offerings to Chinese bilingual students in the future.

Several other collective efforts deserve credit for joining the ranks of the Center in making world literature more accessible.
The Aliform Group, whose works we've featured several times in Margin, is an award-winning publisher of Brazilian, Lusophone, Latin American and world literature.

The American Literary Translators Association is a comprehensive membership organization that has provided essential services to literary translators from all languages and has created a professional forum for the exchange of ideas on the art and craft of literary translation for nearly 30 years.

Arte Público Press operates a comprehensive program called The Recovery Project to reconstitute the literary legacy of Hispanics in the United States from colonial times to 1960.

The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature seeks to translate Hebrew classics, foster special projects in target languages such as Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Russian, and support new anthologies—a move they view as "the ideal introduction to Hebrew literature abroad."

Interpoezia is an intercultural magazine for poetry and arts which features Russian/English writing.

Parabaas Translation aims not only to carry English translations of work by major Bengali authors, but plans to develop a complete online clearinghouse for Bengali literature, including information regarding writers, translators, publishers, language, fonts and word processing tools.

Tameme, a California nonprofit foundation, has as its mission the promotion of English-to-Spanish and Spanish-to-English literary translation of new writing from North America—Canada, the U.S., and Mexico.

Words Without Borders, an online magazine for international literature, writes: "Few literatures have truly prospered in isolation from the world. English-speaking culture in general and American culture in particular has long benefited from cross-pollination with other worlds and languages. Thus it is an especially dangerous imbalance when, today, 50% of all the books in translation now published worldwide are translated from English, but only 6% are translated into English." They offer an email newsletter, a forum and a blog along with their literary content and hope to have an online reading group in the future.

Finally, there are the translators themselves, and magical realism has a handful of dedicated linguists who have helped make it possible for the English-speaking world to tap into its rich and rewarding literary traditions worldwide, including (but by no means limited to:) Harriet de Onís, Edith Grossman, Gregory Rabassa, Jay Miskowiec, Margaret Sayers Peden and Alberto Manguel.




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