Some Morning-After Translation Thoughts
- onAugust 2, 2016
- Vol.32 Summer 2016
- byDaniel Hahn
This is not the column I was intending to write. Over the last few days I’ve jotted down some notes for this piece and it was going to be all about promoting literature in translation here in the UK (the challenges and benefits), about increasing market share, perhaps mentioning some recent particular successes, and so on. I was going to comment on the impressive international performance of Korean literature in the past couple of years and speculate on some of the causes, maybe consider some of the lessons.
But it’s seven in the morning, and I was up most of the night watching the television coverage of our European Union referendum, and as the results come in it’s becoming terrifyingly clear that our voters have made what I believe is a profoundly irresponsible choice, and so, well, it turns out there are more important things that need talking about.
The referendum asked us a simple question: Do we remain a member of the European Union or do we leave? But behind that question, it was really about many different things. Depending on whom you ask, the votes were cast over immigration, democratic rights, disenfranchisement, anti-establishment anger, racism, isolationism, nationalism, patriotism, a massive collapse of trust, austerity, control. Now, you don’t need to know what I personally think it was about, that doesn’t matter here; I’ll just say I was firmly, vehemently in the “Remain” camp, though I do understand the discontent that led many to vote the other way. I think the “Leave” voters made a calamitously wrong choice, but yes, I understand.
Judging by my Facebook timeline and my Twitter feed, however, one would have guessed “Remain” would win by a landslide. Quite possibly even the full unanimous 100%. In one sense that’s not surprising: my friends tend to be educated, internationalist, financially comfortable, and metropolitan, people who feel relatively more enfranchised than the average and who have suffered less than most from the sharpest edges of the status quo, so they largely fit the demographics that have tended to vote that way. But there’s something more than that: my friends are translators, writers, publishers, people who promote literature and diversity and free speech. And even those who aren’t, well, they’re all readers.
In the column that I’m not writing for you, I would have talked about how great it is that Korean literature is becoming a presence in the UK market, and what we can learn from how that has come to be so. I would have included praise for the fine support of LTI Korea, of course, who have been instrumental in making it happen; I would have talked about the individual translators whose advocacy work (and translation work, of course) has allowed the opening-up of this new market to Korean writers using an influence that really can’t be overestimated; and I would probably also have said something about the UK market generally and its long-standing resistance to translation which seems to be dissipating, at last, as we publish more books in translation than ever, attract more attention, sell more copies. These things are important, and I do talk about them all the time. But watching my friends respond to today’s catastrophic news reminds me that we too often take for granted why translating literature is important. We talk about what’s being published and what’s being read, and assume we all agree it’s a good thing when a book crosses a language and a border, but we don’t talk about why.
Is it really so obvious? To everyone?