The Thing That’s Missing from Comp Lit

Zuha Khan is TLP’s Fall Intern! She is a recent college graduate with a B.A. in Comparative Literature and has high hopes to join the publishing world. Zuha’s major sparked her curiosity about translated works and led her to Two Lines.

TP_Cover_largeSince I’m an interested newcomer to the field of translation in publishing, Two Lines Press’s Scott Esposito recommended that I read through The Three Percent Problem. This is an e-book that Chad Post of Open Letter Books put together a couple of years ago based on his huge amounts of personal involvement with (seemingly) virtually every aspect of literary translation. It covers everything from translation statistics (with commentary on various countries) to the lives of translators and how all of it is affected by the globalization of English.

The more I read, the more I vigorously agreed with what was being discussed. As a Comp Lit undergrad, I came to a lot of unfortunate realizations about what little interest there is in translations.

In particular I had noticed the following things:

  • Hardly any English majors knew what Comparative Literature was or its importance
  • The head of the Comp Lit department pushed me toward European languages because of their similarities to English
  • The fact that many schools don’t even have a Comp Lit department, and in others (like mine) the department is miniscule (my graduating class was less than 10 students)
  • Even within my Comp Lit department, the art of translation was almost never discussed

Every realization I had made aligned with what I was reading in The Three Percent Problem. There was a twisted sense of comfort in that. After the first chapter, a few lines kept ringing in my head:

[English’s indifference to translation] is also a roadblock to global discourse that affects writers in every language and . . . imposes itself as the sole mode of globalization. . . . The real issue is not the English language—but the cultural forces within the language that are resistant to translation . . .

Post’s point about “cultural forces within the language that are resistant to translation” completely aligns with my experience, and, personally, I find it really peeving! Typically, my professors would only mention a book’s country of origin. For four years, we never delved into the specifics of language and what the translation process might have been like.

In my final Comp Lit course, that all changed. My professor had us read Amos Kenan’s The Road to Ein Harod in English, and on the day of discussion she brought a professor friend from UC Berkeley with a background in Hebrew and Israeli literature. She had the original Hebrew text of the novel, and we discussed specific words that were lost in translation and changed whole meanings of certain scenes. We examined the work as a translation of the novel and not simply as a text.

raod-ein-harodIt was unfortunate that it took so long to reach this level of discussion about translation in a field that is all about translated books. After the Kenan talk, I wondered how much had been overlooked in my other classes. In The Road to Ein Harod, the Hebrew word for “soil” is translated as “land,” and this makes a harrowing moment near the end of the novel even more meaningful and gripping. Later, I looked through all the course books I’d collected, so many of them translations, and realized how much depth there is to that field. Also, I became aware of just how deeply the “cultural forces” resist the dialogues that translation attempts to bring to English. It ignited a deep curiosity.

With that in mind, if literature is the collective consciousness of the time and place it was written, how does one have successful global discourses? Kenan’s novel about a futuristic, dystopic, Israeli military police state reflected his thoughts about the country he lived in at the time. When I read it, I felt like I received a deeper understanding of Israel that might have been impossible otherwise. As a part of the discourse we participate in when we read books like Kenan’s I think it’s important to always be aware of where these books came from, and what was required to bring them to us in English.

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