Is Lack of Translated Literature an 'Iron Curtain'?

May 17, 2010 by Ana Yoerg
Category: "Spot" on Language, Culture

wall of books

In the United States and Britain, just 2-3% of books published each year are translations, compared to nearly 35% in Latin America and Western Europe.

It's this "dearth of translated literature" that is constructing "a new kind of iron curtain" around the native English-speaking world, argues translator Edith Grossman in a carefully thought-out piece in Foreign Policy magazine.

This is more than just a shame, Grossman writes. It's downright dangerous for those who value the spread of knowledge.

English often serves as the "linguistic bridge" for the translation of a book into a number of Asian and African languages. For example, the Chinese market would be completely closed off to a book written in Spanish unless it was first translated into English. So, limiting translation ultimately "turns off the spigot" that flows not just to us but to the rest of the world, she says.

Taking it even further, you can say that this "dearth" of translation could be a threat to civil liberties, because the free exchange of literary ideas, insights, and intuitions that translation facilitates is central to a free society. If we — knowingly or unknowingly — limit access to information and ideas, we create the possibility of tyranny and dictatorship.

And on a diplomatic level, choosing to block off access to the body of literature of a large and significant portion of the world creates a willfull ignorance of other cultures, movements, and societies — which could have dreadful political consequences, she warns.

 without bordersBut it's not all doom and gloom. A while back I discovered a wonderful organization called Words Without Borders, that translates, publishes, and promotes contemporary international literature, to "open doors for readers of English around the world to the multiplicity of viewpoints, richness of experience, and literary perspective on world events offered by writers in other languages."

They release a monthly online magazine with 8-10 new works by international writers, with past authors including Nobel Prize winners J.M.G Le Clézio, Herta Müller, Mahmoud Darwish, Etgar Keret, Per Petterson, Fadhil Al-Azzawi, W.G. Sebald, and Ma Jian. To date they've published well over a thousand pieces from 114 countries and 80 languages!

Words Without Borders also partners with publishing houses to release print anthologies, and will be working directly with high schools and colleges to provide content and resources to expand curricula to incorporate contemporary international literature, hoping to instill curiosity about other cultures and help students become better world citizens. Inspired? Here's how you can get involved.

A bit of background on Edith Grossman:

Edith Grossman is an award-winning American translator specializing in English versions of Spanish language books. Her version of "Don Quixote" a few years back "caused a sensation in the shadowy realm of newly translated classics," and prompted Harold Bloom to proclaim her the Glenn Gould of translators. Her latest work, "Why Translation Matters" was recently reviewed by The New York Times.


Subscribe to this blog

RSS feed

About this blog

Smart, fun and useful. Acclaro shares news and tips on translation, localization, language, global business and culture.


software cost tips technology & localization industry language entertainment southeast asia arabic website marketing mobile acclaro languages of the world acclaro localization and translation services acclaro world language map world language map arts sports & culture europe eastern europe africa french international business north america latin america middle east swedish asia german chinese documents case study localization retail quality transcreation spanish south america italian english ecard networking portuguese romance languages japanese staffing technology machine translation cost savings acclaro games language apps elearning localization multimedia translation multimedia localization elearning translation training translation ecommerce localization bitcoin cryptocurrency global ecommerce bitcoin regulation bitcoin exchanges china chinese translation chinese localization beijing localization cantonese and mandarin translations translation for business in china business translation in chinese top retail markets in the world new retail openings retail markets acclaro black friday cyber monday cyber week cyber monday woche single’s day bachelor’s day holiday shopping online borderfree doorbuster sales global holiday ecommerce healthcare initiative spanish healthcare mt case study mobile apps mobile app translation app store optimization aso mobile app thai translation ecommerce in asia valentine’s day valentines in japan valentines in south korea chinese valentine’s day singles day translation project fitbit visualiq gibson mardi gras food localization globalization consulting localization staffing localization recruiting startups global scalability international ecommerce international payment international order fulfillment global online shopping acclaro april fool’s stories usaapril fool’s stories germany april fool’s stories ecommerce ecommerce design wine translation marketing translation english remains the dominant language in the united states but almost one in five americans speaks a language other than english at home. are you missing out on customers who are more comfortable doing business in languages other than english? read on to learn how your company can profit from translation within the united states. translation myths translation mistakes international translation misconceptions translation errors translation process translating startups marketing translations translation marketing international social media qa quality assurance quality translations global apps app localization app translation app store translation global startups international app launch press release translation international press release global pr global press release press release localization kontax translate news international marketing video localization video translation video translation agency brazil brazilian portuguese english-to-portuguese translation boston translation services boston web translation boston translation agency global branding international branding global brand evaluation lithuanian translation lithuanian language translation adapt to lithuanian translators translation ecommerce in india business travel business travel apps international banking financial services translation marketing transcreation international copywriting website translation website localization japanese translation english-to-japanese translation japanese translation services translation solutions web localization mobile app localization iphone 6 glocal global brands translation services translation agency translation partner global content marketing localization world business case for translation