Sunday, June 16, 2019

Esperanto and the translation scene

Photo credit: Yûiti Sawaya‎
The recent launch of the Esperanto volume Vjetnama Antologio (Vietnamese Anthology; details below) is a welcome addition to the diversity of Esperanto literature in translation. Abel Montagut, in a 2004 study, concluded that between 1957 and 1966 in the Esperanto world, English, Russian, French, and German (the "Big Four") accounted for only 30% of the source languages; 70% of the translations into Esperanto were from other languages. In sharp contrast, these Big Four accounted for 70% of the source languages in the UNESCO database Index Translationum

This prompted me to have a quick look at other parts of the world. A June 2019 article by Dan Kopf celebrates that, "in 2018, 632 never-before-translated books of fiction and poetry were published in the United States. It’s the fifth straight year the US has published more than 600 translations". Moreover, as Chad Post notes, "the number of original works of fiction and poetry published annually in the US expanded from roughly 360 in 2008 to more than 600 in recent years. That may not seem like a lot, but a 67% increase over a decade is no fluke."

But Gabriella Page-Fort puts that into perspective: this is 632 out of an estimated 30 000 new books published in the US every year -- that's less that 1%! Indeed, Post mentions the 2005 study which "announced that less than 3% of all the books [not just literary fiction and poetry] published in English [in the United States] were originally written in another language". (And hence his international literature resource, "Three Percent".)

Besides, Kopf tells us, "Of the nearly 5800 books of fiction and poetry translated from 2008 to 2018, more than half were from just nine countries, seven of which are in Europe (the exceptions are Japan and China). Over 10% of books were originally published in France alone. Over that same period, only one book each was translated from Benin, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Madagascar, Mali, and Myanmar." No Vietnam there, incidentally! (The data comes from the Publishers Weekly database.) The Big Four in the US were French, German, Spanish, and Italian. (In that 2006-photo of my poetry bookshelf, the books are in English, Esperanto, Hindi, and translations from French, Greek, Persian, Sanskrit, and Urdu.)

The situation with German is much better. "German publishers, for example, bought translation rights to 3782 American books in 2002, while American publishers bought rights for only 150 German books," Stephen Kinzer informs us. The situation has only improved since then, notes Page-Fort: "in 2016, 9882 new translations were published in Germany, 13.6% of new releases".

These observers of the translation scene offer a familiar list of reasons for the situation. Here's Post's one-paragraph summary: "economic censorship (translations don’t make profits, so corporations don’t bother with them), they spiral out to a host of intertwined cultural issues: Editors don’t read foreign languages; it doesn’t pay to fund a translator as well as an author; corporate consolidation has made it harder to publish books that sell modestly; indie presses can’t afford to market the foreign titles they do publish; American readers “yawn” at translations, and so bookstores don’t stock them and reviewers (or the handful that have survived the newspaper die-off) don’t review them. The more you look at it, the more the “problem” begins to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy."

But, as Page-Fort notes: "These dire statistics are focused only on the number of translations published, but demand for international books forces a shift. In China, the top five bestselling fiction books of 2017 were translations (including works by Japan’s Keigo Higashino and Afghan-American author Khaled Hosseini); compare that to the US top five, who were all American, save for Canadian Margaret Atwood. We, the readers, have the power to change this trend."

Post offers another perspective. "If there are a few thousand above-average titles to choose from every year [from the world's languages], why not choose the ones that people will be debating and discussing decades from now, instead of the immediate successes?"

Let me end with Page-Fort again (and with a 2017-photo of five books from my poetry shelf.): "It is easy for me to imagine a more compassionate world, a place where education brings people together and empowers us to find one another through the arts. I would like to think that globalization will lead us toward a new cultural unity; a world where books are as unique as the people who write them and readers are drawn together through stories, beyond the borders of language or country."

I'm glad to see that the world Esperanto movement is playing a role here!

Vjetnama Antologio (2019), edited by Nguyen Thi Phuong Mai and Luon Ngoc Bao, was launched during the 9th Asian-Oceanian Congress of Esperanto in Danang, Vietnam (25-28 April 2019). The book is 14.5 x 20.5 cm, and has 386 pages. Price: 350 VND (about 15 EUR). Cover Photo credit: Yûiti Sawaya‎