Columns > Published on May 31st, 2019

The Importance of Work in Translation

I love work in translation. I consider myself lucky because I can read in English and Spanish, opening the door to not one, but two amazing literary universes. From Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote to Bram Stoker's Dracula, I've been able to read classic works of literature in their original language. That said, my Portuguese is decent, but not decent enough to devour novels, and my Italian is that of a one-year old. I don't speak or read Russian or Japanese or Greek. I can't read classics in Hindi, Polish, German, Mandarin, Tagalog, Korean, Turkish, Tamil, Urdu, Javanese, Igbo, Ukranian, Romanian, Czech, Navajo, Thai, Somali, Zulu, get the point. Work in translation makes it possible for me to explore countries and cultures previously unavailable to me. And that's just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Here are five reasons why work in translation is crucial to a healthy literary diet. 

It opens the world to us

Imagine not reading anything outside that which is produced in your own country. If you're reading this, I'm going to guess you are a book person, a reader. If that's the case, take a minute to imagine your life, your literary journey, without ever having read Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Dante Alighieri, Victor Hugo, Jose Saramago, Isabel Allende, Ernesto Sabato, Cesar Aira, Miguel de Cervantes, Italo Calvino, Proust, Juan Rulfo, Goethe, Charles Baudelaire, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda, Gunter Grass, Valeria Luiselli, Kenzaburo Oe, Octavio Paz, Haruki Murakami, Kafka, Anton Chekhov, Umberto Eco, Aesop, Aristotle, Julio Cortazar, Thomas Mann, Chinua Achebe, Anne Frank, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Borges, Federico Garcia Lorca, Nikolay Gogol, Edwidge Danticat, Camus, Sartre, Milan Kundera, Frantz Fanon, Jules Verne, Mario Vargas Llosa, Kazuo Ishiguro, Gabriela Mistral, Sandra Cisneros, Alfonsina Storni...the list goes on and on and on. Every continent, every country, every piece of history is available to us, but only through translation. Translation opens the world to us and invites us to step into a plethora of places without leaving home. How awesome is that? 

Authors are superb chroniclers and social analysts  

Simply put, books from other places expand our literary universe in many ways.

Once we are in, what can we learn? Work in translation allows us to understand, at least partially, other people and their culture. I've never been to Chile, but its tumultuous political past is something I've read about extensively. I've never officially studied Nigerian history and politics, but the work of authors like Okey Ndibe has helped me understand the corruption and cultural richness of that country. Again, the list goes on and on. Before I traveled to the US the first time, I already felt like I knew Los Angeles and New York, Chicago and Boston, Texas and Florida. I know about poverty in Cuba. I know about political unrest in Argentina. I know about Haiti's terrible, bloody past. I know about Mexico's wars and current struggles. Why do I know about these things? Because I have been able to read about them. 

It diversifies literature 

If you know me at all you know I'm huge on diversity. I want narratives from every conceivable group of people, from every nationality and religion and background and ethnicity and sexual orientation and way of life. Work in translation helps us achieve that. Translated works add to the conversation, expose us to new ideas and points of views, and show us how things are done in other places. Reading work in translation is a great way to kick-start a reconfiguration of your preconceived notions about a place or group of people. Reading work in translation is the easiest, most entertaining way to explore a multiplicity of frameworks and approaches, to study a wide variety of writing rhythms and styles. Simply put, books from other places expand our literary universe in many ways. 

It's a hell of a lot of fun

I love to read rural noir and horror and crime and literary fiction and everything else set in this country. However, from time to time, I want to see what happens if I look for the James Ellroy of some other country. I like to see if there is someone better and dirtier than Bukowski in the Caribbean (there is, and his name is Pedro Juan Gutierrez). I want to explore the female experience in other countries, to see how feminism struggles or thrives or battles its way into everyday life. Reading is a fun way of doing all that and more. I love to learn about Japanese behavior in social situations and to see how young folks in Spain are dealing with a crumbling economy. I don't have the money to go and live in each of those countries, so I read. And reading is a hell of a lot of fun to me, especially when I'm craving something different and find the perfect translation of a book that caters to that desire. 

It goes both ways 

Jake Hinkson, David Joy, Benjamin Whitmer, and William Boyle are just four of many American authors whose work is doing great things in France. I sold two novels to a publishers there and hope my work does the same. There is a Spanish version of Zero Saints. The Turkish edition of Gutmouth will be published on June 6th. Translation gives you access to the world, and then turns around and gives the world access to you. It is a two-way street. It bothers me when people think of work in translation only as being translated into English. There are 328 million people in this country, but there are 1.386 billion in China. About 360 million people speak English around the world, but 400 million speak Spanish. Translating to and from all languages is something that enriches every country that participates in the exchange.

Think about it this way: "Pinocchio" is a great story for kids. If it hadn't been translated from Italian into English, you probably wouldn't have read it...and the same goes for folks who read any of the 260 languages into which it has been translated. Isn't that awesome stuff? Now go read a book in translation.  

About the author

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS, HUNGRY DARKNESS, and GUTMOUTH. His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, Marginalia, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues. Y

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