The 2020 PEN America Literary Awards were conferred in New York last week in a gala ceremony modeled on the Oscars, complete with jazz accompaniment (Ulysses Owens Jr. Band), storied venue (Town Hall), and celebrity host (Seth Myers). You might think that writers, on giving and receiving prizes, would unfailingly make acceptance speeches that are profound or provocative or at least felicitous. That was not consistently the case even when speeches had been prepared — despite certain peak moments (the unforgettable M. NourbeSe Philip, for instance). And what of the speeches that were not delivered because their finalist authors were not winners? What effusion or insight, wit or scandal might they have afforded the audience? Most likely we will never know.
The award for Poetry in Translation went to Kristin Dykstra and Nancy Gates Madsen for their version of Cuban Reina María Rodríguez’s The Winter Garden Photograph (Ugly Duckling Presse). Their acceptance was moving and gracious, but I caught myself yearning for just a bit more — some sense of what trials they underwent as translators of the Spanish texts, or an argument for the importance of their project for English readers at the present time. I am familiar with their book, at once intriguing and inspiring, and I applaud the judges’ decision as well as the translators’ accomplishment. That night, I guess, I was hoping to learn something I couldn’t get between covers.
I fell into the category of an also-ran with my translation of Catalan J.V. Foix’s Daybook 1918: Early Fragments (Northwestern University Press). At once ecstatic and honored to be named a finalist, I wrestled with the remarks I would make should I be summoned to the stage. In the end, I wound up confronting what it means to be a literary translator in the United States today. Or what it should mean? Here is what I would have read out if my translation had been chosen:
Miracles do happen.
In 2013, when I started shopping around a big chunk of this translation, it was greeted by a succession of rejections. The roll call of distinguished presses would shock you. Large and small, commercial and academic, nobody wanted to publish it. This predicament isn’t unusual in the Anglophone world. In the US translations are a speck in the editorial immensity. In 2019, according to Publishers Weekly, 1.6 million books were published here, most of them self-published. Yet only about 600 were literary translations. Last year, as in most years over the past century, the largest number were from French, roughly 120 books, followed by Spanish at 80. Only seven books were translated from Catalan.
The editors kindly commented on their rejections, and a pattern coalesced: the project was deemed too foreign, even too specialized, to be capable of appreciation in English. J.V. Foix, a major figure in 20th-century Catalan writing, was suffering the fate of most authors in minor languages. Minority means marginality, defined by narrow circulation and limited knowledge, which in turn prevent a minor literature from being published in the center, from achieving wide circulation and becoming an object of knowledge beyond the periphery. This vicious circle constitutes the strangeness of minority.
How, I wondered, could I smash this circle while keeping my translation strange? The worst thing you can do with foreign writing is to treat it like a pet — by domesticating it. Translation traffics in linguistic and cultural difference, so it ought to disrupt business as usual and interrogate the status quo; it should always make us aware of what we lack. The rejections drove me to reconceive my project so as to give a compelling sense of Foix’s moment, the heady ferment of literary and political possibilities in Catalonia before the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936. I translated a broad range of work in different genres, Foix’s as well as that of his contemporaries, providing enough material to enable a deep immersion. And I translated it into a broad sampling of Englishes, standard and nonstandard, mixing the punctilious with the colloquial, hard-edged modernism with fin de siècle lyricism. My aim was to send the reader not only abroad but into the past.
I would like to think that this prize says: the translation works. It certainly challenges the presentism that characterizes current translation publishing. The past 20 years have seen a proliferation of small presses with lists devoted to translations, but they’ve joined the multinational conglomerates in focusing on contemporary foreign writing. Most prizes do the same: the Booker International Prize, the International Dublin Literary Award, the revived translation prize at the National Book Awards all privilege contemporary writing. Yet we need the past to critique the present, to tell us what we are no longer, and to help us imagine what we might become.
This prize would seem to recognize, finally, that a different kind of translator is emerging, one who aspires to be a writerly intellectual, ready to intervene into the most urgent debates in the receiving situation by juxtaposing a moment from a very different language and culture. Foix can tell us much about the literary and political force of ethnicity and nationalism, of gender and sexuality, and of the pressing need to combat the insularity, complacency, and sheer narcissism that seems to exist everywhere in the US today.
Miracles do happen. Thank you.
Lawrence Venuti is a translator theorist and historian as well as a translator from Italian, French, and Catalan.