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Found in Translation

Friday 10 July 2015

By BENJAMIN MOSER

JULY 7, 2015

LES EYZIES-DE-TAYAC, France — In college in the 1990s, I happened upon a Brazilian writer so sensational that I was sure she must be a household name. And she was — in Curitiba or Maranhão. Outside Brazil, it seemed, nobody knew of Clarice Lispector.

My freshman year, I’d abandoned studying Chinese when our professor said it’d be 10 years before we’d be able to decipher a newspaper. I switched to Portuguese, despite zero knowledge of the language or culture.

Eventually we started reading short Brazilian works. One of these, a 1977 novella by Lispector called “The Hour of the Star,” changed my life. Though its nuances were lost on me, I sensed the strange beauty in the story of a poor girl in Rio de Janeiro. The author was the book’s most forceful presence, and I wanted to learn everything about her. Who was the woman who peered from the back cover like an exiled empress?

As I later learned, Lispector’s first name was enough to identify her to most Brazilians. But two decades after her death in 1977, she remained virtually untranslated; among English speakers, she was unknown outside some academic circles. One pleasure of discovering a great writer is the ability to share her work, and I was stymied. Lispector’s obscurity reinforced itself. People couldn’t care about someone they couldn’t read. And if they couldn’t read her, they couldn’t become interested.

It took me years to realize that this vicious cycle would not magically be broken. I started writing Lispector’s biography, a project that took five years. The result, “Why This World,” generated interest in a series of English translations of her novels. So far, these have taken another five years. In retrospect, Chinese would have been quicker.

The past decade has given me time to reflect on the main cause of Lispector’s obscurity: the increasing global dominance of English. An international tongue may help tourists, but it is turning literature into a one-way street. Not only does this make life harder for contemporary writers, the situation is even worse for those, like Lispector, who can no longer speak for themselves.

Writers who work in English can’t be faulted for profiting from a situation that has developed over centuries. But since we do profit from it, it’s partly up to us to try to remedy it.

In the United States and Britain, translations represent just 3 percent of the book market. In Russia, in contrast, translated titles accounted for 10.5 percent of the market in 2013; in China, they make up around 7 percent. In the Netherlands, some 75 percent of all books produced are translations, according to 2013 statistics — and about 10 percent of all general interest books sold are original, English-language versions. Not only do foreign writers face obstacles to being read abroad, then, they are being crowded out of bookstores in their own countries. The English language, like rats or kudzu, has become an invasive species.

Some prominent English-language writers are already fighting this trend. Jonathan Franzen has translated “Spring Awakening,” by the fin-de-siècle German dramatist Frank Wedekind, and the essays of Viennese satirist Karl Kraus. Lydia Davis alternates between French translation and her own writing. Elizabeth Kostova, an American novelist, started a foundation in 2007 to bring Bulgarian writers into English.

Because there are so many English-language readers, reaching this market has a powerful effect. Thanks to Ms. Kostova, contemporary Bulgarian writers have a chance at being known internationally. Once Lispector was translated into English, she could be read in other countries, including by editors from China to Ukraine who are trying to get her published locally.

It shouldn’t be assumed, as I long did, that all great foreign writers will eventually reach English-language bookstores. As publication in English becomes more important, even editors open to translations are overwhelmed. (And few read Norwegian.) For every Karl Ove Knausgaard or Elena Ferrante, who are translated almost as soon as they appear in Norwegian or Italian, there are many Lispectors.

Taking them on, after all, is an act of faith. At my first publishing job, in New York, I tried to convince my boss that a manuscript that seemed to blend sci-fi with bad porn was the work of an important new writer causing a stir in France. Though unable to read French, one editor took my word for it. The manuscript was “Elementary Particles,” by Michel Houellebecq. Every translation represents a similar leap.

The dream of a global literary community is not new. But as globalization has not meant greater political or economic equality, cultural cosmopolitanism has not been guaranteed by instant communication and inexpensive travel. These do, however, present significant new opportunities for literary activism.

Writers working in English who know another language can help make connections and advocate for their foreign colleagues. Contacts are perhaps writers’ most valuable assets. Only a few people know everybody, but most of us know somebody. Just one or two contacts — an editor, an agent — can make a difference for a foreign writer. This includes links to fellowships, writing programs, and retreats that non-English-language writers haven’t heard about.

Even writers who beat the odds and are published in English face difficulty finding an audience, largely because they don’t have the networks they do at home. Since translations are less frequently reviewed, people who might be interested are less likely to hear about them. English-language writers can help by reviewing foreign works that make it into English, or interviewing their authors, taking advantage of the amplifying effects of social media.

Few things are lonelier than the solitary task of confronting the blank page for years on end. Literature, on the other hand, is made by a community: present and past, dead and alive. Everyone loses when books become yet another commodity, produced by a few big names. It’s one thing if everyone wears the same shoes or drinks the same soda. But the world of literature is the last place in which globalization should mean homogeneity.

Benjamin Moser is the author of “Why This World,” a biography of Clarice Lispector, and editor of her forthcoming “Collected Stories.”

A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 8, 2015, in The International New York Times.

See online: Found in Translation