Café CSE: Literary Translation and the 3 percent Problem

At the Center for the Study of Europe‘s first Café CSE of the semester, professors Marlene Esplin and Daryl Hague addressed literary translation and the 3 percent problem, discussing the value of foreign literatures and the need to increase English translations of works written in other languages.

PROVO, Utah (Feb. 4, 2015)— In predominantly English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States, only 3 percent of books published each year were originally written in a language other than English. Professors Marlene Esplin of Comparative Arts and Letters and Daryl Hague of Spanish and Portuguese discussed the implications of this translational crisis and why literary diversity matters at a Café CSE discussion.

English professor Nick Mason, moderator of the discussion, asked Esplin and Hague just how serious the 3 percent problem actually is in an academic as well as a global context.

Cafe CSE 1Esplin explained that the 3 percent problem is not simply problematic for teachers and professors that teach foreign literature, but is clearly a global issue. She said that publishing companies and consumers act as gatekeepers, discouraging other voices from participating in global conversations. “We alienate ourselves,” Esplin said. “Our inability to see outside ourselves has many moral and political implications.”

Hague said that one counterargument to the 3 percent problem is that the spread of English texts at some level comes at the peril of other languages and that global English is becoming the new reality.

Mason pointed to critics of global English, who often say that English is an invasive species. “What would be lost if we reversed the curse of Babel and spoke and wrote in English at all times?” Mason asked.

“I would say that it would be a death of the 6,000 worlds that each of the 6,000 existing languages represent,” Hague said.

Hague continued to explain that there are Russian speakers who can discern shades of blue that speakers of Western languages cannot, or that one aboriginal group never gets lost because they organize the world in cardinal directions rather than right and left. However, Esplin and Hague cautioned against drawing larger cultural conclusions from the instrinsic nature of any one national language

Mason inquired whether part of the 3 percent problem is the fear of losing the essence of the original language in translation. Many people might feel they are getting less than the ideal if they read something that had been translated, Mason suggested, which could be a possible reason for the lack of consumer demand for translated texts.

“Obviously there’s some loss in translation,” said Esplin, “But to think that it’s not worth the effort to read a translation is flawed thinking. More is gained than is lost in translation.”

Hague explained that in the process of translation it is inevitable that the physicality of the actual sound will be lost, as well as many of the allusions that are made in the original text. Translating a text into a second language, however, introduces new allusions as well as experiences with what he calls “difference.”

Cafe CSE 2“A domesticating strategy in translation is to make the literary translation as seamless as possible, to appear as if it were written in the original language,” said Hague. “Foreignizing approaches try not to do that. They’ll throw in words from the original text, or they’ll even use difficult structures on purpose. It’s like having the translator knock on the door and say, ‘You’re not reading something from your culture.’”

Esplin added that the downside to the domestication of translated texts is that the idiosyncrasies of a foreign language are ironed out when translated into English, but that foreignizing strategies create ways to view what might have been lost in translation.

Esplin and Hague suggested that by paying attention to the translator’s preface or introduction to the translated work, the reader would be able to identify methods the translator used to capture the essence of the original work they have translated.

Esplin explained that the paratext acts as a map for the reader. In the preface translators will often address the difficulties they had in translating and how they have reworked aspects of the text that are perhaps mitigated in translation.

“One of the truisms in translation is that every translation is an interpretation,” said Hague. “The introduction gives the translator an opportunity to defend herself.”

He continued, “We can still engage in that suspension of disbelief that makes reading literature pleasurable. We can increase the pleasure by paying attention to those things that are unique to translations.”

Esplin identified various grassroots efforts that work to improve the dismal 3 percent variable of English translations of foreign texts. One such grassroots effort is Words without Borders, a group that works to promote cultural awareness through translating and promoting the works of international authors.

To conclude, Esplin said, “I think of the imperative that we have at BYU to go out into the world, to bring the world to others. That’s what the act of translation is.”

Sylvia Cutler (B.A. English ’17)