Always Already Translated

Here are some common metaphors for thinking about translation: as a ferryman (a word that derives from the Latin transferre), as a new set of garments, and as resurrection or afterlife. These ...

Here are some common metaphors for thinking about translation: as a ferryman (a word that derives from the Latin transferre), as a new set of garments, and as resurrection or afterlife. These formulations all assume that an original text composed in a particular language is subsequently translated into other languages. In her new book, Born Translated, however, Rebecca Walkowitz challenges the idea of translation as a derivative or secondary process with a simple but powerful observation about the contemporary conditions of literary production: “Many books today do not appear at first only in a single language. Instead, they appear simultaneously or nearly simultaneously in multiple languages.”

Of course, as Walkowitz herself notes, books have always traveled from their homes to other places and other tongues in ways that often increase their influence. Edgar Allan Poe might be forgotten in the US today if it hadn’t been for Baudelaire and the French symbolists, and the landscape of 20th-century American poetry would be vastly different if there had been no classical Chinese verse. But those migrations were often relatively slow and, at least initially, regionally limited. Don Quixote took 51 years to be translated from Spanish into five other languages, and the Communist Manifesto, although it appeared in numerous European languages within 24 years, took almost 60 to appear in a non-European one, with the Japanese edition published only in 1904.

A century later, things are very different. Walkowitz opens with two examples of the contemporary scene. Over the course of a few months in 2005, the sixth installment of Harry Potter was published in 15 languages, including Vietnamese, Afrikaans, and Estonian. More recently, between February and December of 2013, J. M. Coetzee’s Childhood of Jesus appeared on five continents in nine languages. Today, literature is translated with unprecedented speed into numerous national markets, no matter what the genre.

Walkowitz argues that these new conditions of production have altered the very shape of the contemporary novel. Many literary works today do not appear in translation, she proposes, but are written for translation from the beginning. They are “born translated.” Adapted from “born digital,” the term used to designate artworks produced by and for the computer, “born-translated literature approaches translation as medium and origin rather than as afterthought. Translation is not secondary or incidental to these works. It is a condition of their production.”

The idea that translation should not be understood as simply derivative has a long lineage, stretching back at least to Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator.” In recent years, questions about the politics of translation in the global literary marketplace have dominated discussions of world literature. Walkowitz’s contribution to these debates is to unsettle the idea that we know readily what is a translated text and what isn’t. Strikingly for a book whose title bears the terms “translation” and “world literature,” her case studies are limited to works in English. This is a deliberate choice that makes an important contribution to studies of contemporary anglophone fiction, while also raising questions about how to theorize—and organize our study of—world literature. Instead of tracking the reception of particular texts or authors in different languages and regions (although there is a little of that), Walkowitz proceeds by examining how the fact of being written for translation shapes the very form of works that only appear to be composed in a single language. This is the force of her idea that contemporary novels are born translated—they’re always already translated even before they’ve entered another language.

Today, literature is translated with unprecedented speed into numerous national markets, no matter what the genre.

When this single language is English the problem takes on a particular significance. Anglophone novels are more likely to appear in translation than novels in any other language, and people the world over read many English-language works long before they are translated. This is also true of other global languages such as Spanish and Portuguese, but Walkowitz argues that English is dispersed like no other. Moreover, English is the most frequent medium of translations—it facilitates the movement of texts in other languages into yet more languages. “In this sense,” Walkowitz points out, “English-language writing is, like writing in other languages, an object of globalization; but it is also, unlike writing in other languages, crucial to globalization’s machinery.”

The role of English as facilitator of globalization is exactly what opponents of world literature lament and critique. From this standpoint one might well raise an eyebrow at a book about world literature that deals only with English. But the significance of Walkowitz’s focus on anglophone works lies in her insistence on the internal multilingualism of English, whose global dominance today tends to efface the history of its contact with other tongues, which is of course also the history of trade, colonialism, and migration. As Walkowitz writes, “Literature in dominant languages tends to ‘forget’ that it has benefitted from literary works in other languages. Born-translated fiction, therefore, engages in a project of unforgetting.”

Walkowitz pursues her investigation through an impressive number of novels published in the last few decades, most extensively those of J. M. Coetzee and Kazuo Ishiguro, but also works by David Mitchell, Caryl Phillips, Jamaica Kincaid, Mohsin Hamid, Amy Waldman, Adam Thirlwell, and the digital collective Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, among others.1 The five chapters of the book are structured around conceptual categories rather than individual authors, although there is no shortage of textual readings, many of them illuminating.

Because Walkowitz aims to show that processes of translation are woven into the very form of even apparently monolingual works, the meaning of “translation” and the range of acts it covers end up being both broader and different from what we might expect. When translation in Walkowitz’s book refers to travel between languages, this is usually limited to the content of stories that, like Coetzee’s Childhood of Jesus, pretend to take place in a different language (in this case, Spanish) from the one in which they are composed (English). Elsewhere, translation refers to travel between locations in the story, as in Coetzee’s Summertime, or the invocation of multiple geographical scales, as in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or to the strategies of sampling and collating that govern Caryl Phillips’s multistranded novels of migration, as well as his anthologies. When the term extends to non-textual elements like typography, translation comes to include the bifurcated sentence structures of China Miéville’s The City & The City, and the invented writing systems sketched by Walter Mosley in his drawing series Alien Script.

Walter Mosley, <i>Alien Script 1</i>. Source:

Walter Mosley, Alien Script 1. Source:

In what sense can the English-language works of Coetzee, Ishiguro, Mitchell, Hamid, et al. be said to be translated? That remains an open question, and at times Walkowitz’s use of the term is so capacious that it threatens to become simply synonymous with transformation or interpretation. But she shows convincingly that many contemporary works now have scattered and multiple origins, and that this calls for revisions to the basic categories of literary studies: “author, reader, original, translation, nation, world, native, and foreign.”

For scholars, the corollary is that instead of organizing literary histories according to the citizenship of authors, we might instead classify them “according to the languages and versions of language in which a work is read, whether as original, translation, edition, adaptation, or collaboration.” Instead of falling solely under “American literature,” then, there might also be an entry for Poe in French and Latin American literature as well. The bookshelves in the Library of Congress would have to be rearranged. In effect, national literature departments should also become departments of comparative literature.

Any celebration of translation in the context of world literature today must confront the question of the untranslatable. Walkowitz helpfully distinguishes between two different understandings of this concept as they have recently been used by Emily Apter in Against World Literature and Barbara Cassin in her Vocabulaire européen des philosophies, the book that Apter helped to translate and adapt into English as Dictionary of Untranslatables. In Walkowitz’s gloss, Apter’s version of the untranslatable is that which resists passage between languages. The untranslatable thus frustrates the market-driven logic of universality that undergirds a paradigm of World Literature all too synonymous with US global hegemony. In this scenario, the idea that all texts should be accessible in (English) translation eliminates the patient development of deep local knowledge and linguistic expertise required to understand literatures in all their particularity.

Walkowitz responds to such critiques by mobilizing Cassin’s alternate meaning of “untranslatable” in order to uncouple “translatability” from a too-easy portability. For Cassin, the term “untranslatable” refers to “what one doesn’t stop (not) translating,” or in positive terms, “what one keeps on translating because one cannot finish doing so.” Not repeated acts of accomplishment but an ongoing principle of failure: I can’t go on, I’ll go on. Here, the path of resistance to a bad version of World Literature is not to block translation but to demand more of it, keeping the work perpetually open to readers elsewhere and elsewhen.

Such openness and multiplicity also aligns born-translated works with an antinational politics. Walkowitz’s writers resist the idea of the nation as an organic whole constituted by intrinsic or biological affinities and tied to a single birthplace or origin. Instead, born-translated works imagine themselves as series, lists, grafts, and clones. Because these figures aren’t invested in the logic of uniqueness, originality, or intrinsic belonging, they allow us to imagine communities that are not based on affinity but rather created in its absence.

The bookshelves in the Library of Congress would have to be rearranged.

The idea that translatability disrupts discourses of nationalism is appealing. But we should also be wary of any easy exportation of the paradigm of born-translated fiction from one context to another. Walkowitz’s argument that translation and circulation ought not to be considered literature’s second act seems progressive when it comes to anglophone works: reading the Dutch and Finnish editions of Never Let Me Go as affecting the novel’s production decenters the priority and supremacy of English. But what about works in smaller languages, say, Croatian or Catalan—what would it mean to claim that their appearances in English are part of their production? Such an argument would appear eminently susceptible to the critique of world literature as being dangerously synonymous with US (or anglophone) hegemony. The valences of Walkowitz’s argument about world literature look very different depending on the geopolitical histories of the languages under discussion.

Even within the anglophone field alone, the fate of born-translated works is far from uniform, and Walkowitz’s premise is a generative one in part because it can lead to conclusions different from her own. It’s significant that most of her examples have found enormous success in the global literary marketplace. She is clear that she chose books that have used strategies of translation as both spur and opportunity, and that facilitate their own expansion into new spaces by addressing multiple audiences. But there are also contemporary works whose multilingualism has been an obstacle to their production and circulation. Take Helen DeWitt’s extraordinary debut novel, The Last Samurai, about a precocious young boy who teaches himself Japanese, ancient Greek, and Arabic, and who casually reads Njál’s Saga in the Old Norse. It is an exemplary born-translated work, but in an interview, DeWitt describes the enormous difficulty she had getting the novel published: “Editors thought it was too dense, too difficult; there were too many quotations, too much Greek, Japanese, Old Norse … It was clear that it would be easier to publish a book in a single voice, with a linear narrative, with no quotations, no Greek, no Japanese.”2

In many ways this is the familiar modernist predicament of the difficult, multilingual masterpiece that goes unrecognized by uncomprehending publishers. But notably, one of the chief obstacles was that the novel incorporated non-Roman scripts, which created mechanical challenges that made it hard to produce. DeWitt recalls the trial of finding an editor who could manage to get Greek and Japanese typeset. In this case, the book’s multilingualism, specifically the presence of multiple systems of script, threatened its very existence. Even after the book was finally bought by a (now defunct) publishing division of Miramax, DeWitt continued to encounter production difficulties. “The production manager could not get a typesetter who could cope with Greek and Japanese. The title of the book had to be changed. Miramax took 40 percent of foreign rights money—and STILL would not send foreign publishers the files they needed to produce the book correctly.”3

The Last Samurai’s multilingualism functioned as an obstacle to its survival in a publishing industry that, for all its global circulation, still remains linguistically provincial. Although DeWitt’s novel has since been translated into 20 languages, the American edition has only recently come back into print. Being born-translated can materially block a work’s appearance and circulation on the global stage as much as facilitate it.

The example of The Last Samurai suggests that the question of which novels get published and translated must take into account the material constraints of book production. Indeed, Walkowitz argues that born-translated works demand reading practices that don’t focus on the text’s smallest units—words—but instead attend to other blocks such as the chapter, the edition, and, importantly, the book. In this light, we might ask questions such as: How many of the polylingual texts so prominent in modernism are also polyalphabetic? How did challenges such as typesetting affect their production and distribution? We might also ask about the effects of alien scripts—or their suppression—in a work. In that exemplar of polylingual pyrotechnics, Ulysses, non-Roman scripts feature diegetically—Leopold Bloom writes a letter using “Greek ees” and he and Stephen Dedalus are described as writing Irish and Hebrew letters for one another, but all of these are rendered in Roman script.4 What does it mean for foreign letters to remain imagined or conceptual, rather than confronting readers with their material illegibility?

Born Translated is about a kind of multilingualism internal to contemporary English-language novels, and like the works it studies, the book seeks to deprovincialize anglophone literature from within. Walkowitz makes the case for translation so persuasively that it’s hard not to walk away with the conviction that what the anglophone literary world needs above all are more actual translations from other languages. The number varies according to the source, but a frequently cited statistic places the number of translated works in the US literary marketplace at 2 or 3%. Compare this with 27% in France, 28% in Spain, 40% in Turkey, and 70% in Slovenia.5 This minuscule figure undoubtedly contributes to the insularity of American letters, sustaining a naive, arrogant belief that anglophone literature is world literature.

The Internet has helped to combat this insularity, giving birth to online journals like Asymptote and Words Without Borders that publish and promote literature in translation. Poets have long known that translating is one of the best ways of learning how to write. What if this fact were more broadly recognized? What if language study in the US were funded and valued? What if translating the best works of any literary tradition (tentative and broken as it would inevitably be) were a standard part of language instruction early on, or if translation exercises were built into school curricula in the way that writing pastiche was a routine pedagogical practice in Third Republic France?6 We might have a community of readers who would need no reminders to unforget the relationship of English to other languages.

This de-provincializing must also extend to literary studies. In a 2005 address at the PEN World Voices Festival entitled “The Post-National Writer,” Eliot Weinberger, a vociferous and cogent advocate of literary translation, identified at least five models of “post-national” writers.7 “Post” not because national borders don’t continue to be policed or because violence isn’t still committed in its name, but because this age of mass migration and global consciousness means that there are few pockets of the world untouched by contact with other cultures. Weinberger’s models of post-national literature include writers from former colonies revitalizing the literature of a language like French or English, as well as writers who move to another country and adopt that country’s language (Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov, for example, and more recently W. G. Sebald, Ha Jin, and Yoko Tawada, a German novelist who is Japanese).

Weinberger also identifies less familiar models that move beyond the old hierarchies of colonialism—the West and the rest—and that continue to demand more attention from scholars and critics. These include horizontal dialogues between Third World writers who live in and write about other non-Western countries, such as the work of the Cuban author José Manuel Prieto set in Russia (Prieto has also translated Russian writers like Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky, and Andrei Platonov). Some of the most exciting work in comparative literature today involves cross-cultural dialogues that unsettle the center-periphery paradigm, such as Steven Lee’s recent The Ethnic Avant-Garde, which traces the pilgrimages of American minority writers and non-Western artists to Moscow during the interwar years, when the Soviet Union was seen as a beacon of both artistic innovation and racial equality.

Given its focus on works in English, Born Translated provides an inevitably bounded view of world literature. Fittingly for a book that is oriented so firmly toward futurity and reception, then, its own project invites further translation, for the comparative work needed to develop a theory of world literature—even if this theory can never be singular or unified—will surely have to extend across languages and regions. Would Walkowitz’s argument survive its own voyage into other linguistic and cultural contexts? One would imagine that the ways in which translation seeds production in the contemporary lusophone or Chinese novel, say, might take a very different form, because the way in which anglophone works are born translated has everything to do with the conditions of English as a language of global dominance. Nevertheless, in the spirit of the untranslatable that Walkowitz adopts from Cassin, her book asks us to go on confronting the impossible and unavoidable problem of world literatures in a globalized age, soliciting future responses that come from readers in other tongues and other places. icon

  1. The work of Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, which is digital, can be found here.
  2. Helen DeWitt, interview by Morton Høi Jensen, Bookforum, 2011.
  3. Ibid.
  4. I’m grateful to Catherine Flynn for helping me recall these examples.
  5. Hephzibah Anderson, “Why Won’t English Speakers Read Books in Translation?” BBC Culture, October 21, 2014.
  6. See Hannah Freed-Thall, Spoiled Distinctions: Aesthetics and the Ordinary in French Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2015), p. 41.
  7. Eliot Weinberger, “The Post-National Writer,” in Oranges & Peanuts for Sale (New Directions, 2009), pp. 184–190.
Featured image: Chinese edition of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Colin Zhu / Flickr