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.

So what?

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?

I’ve only spent four days in Korea in my whole life, and those four days were for a conference so I barely escaped my hotel. Korea is the other side of the world for me, a culture that should seem as entirely unintelligible as its strange and beautiful language.

And yet.

In the last couple of years I’ve come to know the work of half a dozen Korean novelists (three years ago I couldn’t have named one); and in so doing, I’ve imaginatively inhabited dozens of varied Korean lives. Again and again I’ve discovered how different each of these people is from me, and I’ve been able to engage with them at all because of the ways in which we are also fundamentally the same. Reading fiction requires imagination, and imagination is what enables empathy. And empathy is… well, any attempt at empathy was in short supply in yesterday’s referendum. Empathy makes racism more difficult, it makes mean-spirited negligence more difficult, it makes selfishness more difficult.

Empathy insists upon compassion.

Recent studies have shown that reading fiction strengthens empathy, theory of mind; and I’d contend that we should want a vast diversity of books traveling the world because the more pluralism you find in the fiction available, the wider the horizons, the more profoundly effective that empathy work-out can hope to be.

(Yesterday’s referendum was no great celebration of pluralism, either.)

Making it possible for my readers to read your writers and vice versa—that possessive “my” and “your” is sadly revealing, too—isn’t just important because of the exporting of cultural products is a potentially valuable commercial activity; and it isn’t even just important for reasons of soft power. Translating books from there and bringing them here, those are also positive, optimistic, generous things to do.

Yesterday’s referendum decision had been contested fearfully, negatively, ungenerously. There was much discussion about the country’s net contribution to the EU: How do we make sure we get out more than we put in? How do we make “them” bear more costs so we need only bear fewer costs ourselves? In three months of campaigning I heard not one person making the altruistic case for contributing, for its own sake and not for a greater net return. Arguing that when others need our help, we should help them, because doing good is better than not doing good. And no, I’m not hopelessly naïve, and of course I didn’t truly expect anyone to make this argument in a political campaign, but still, empathy… We—both politicians and electorate— could do with more empathy than was on display in the language of the last few months.

Those of us who translate and write, and who encourage and support translation, those of us who teach others to translate and write and read, those of us who campaign for reading and those of us who just read—we are all in the empathy business. And just look at the world around us! Getting people to broaden their imaginative horizons has never been more important. If you, who are reading this, are someone who does one of those things, thank you.

If they’re anything like me, I suspect most English readers will read translated Korean fiction in the same way as their own, every bit as demandingly, without making allowances. That is, they expect to be seduced by a voice, turned on by a character, excited by a plot, they expect to be surprised into surrendering to the rhythm and muscle and taste of the (translated) language and lose themselves pleasurably in it. (These are all reasons why the recent Korean Man Booker International Prize winner is such a good standard-bearer as literary translations go.) And retailers promote translated fiction accordingly. They don’t try to tell readers foreign books are “good for you,” that they’re healthy, that they’ll encourage you to understand people unlike you and discover the ways they are like you, too, that they’ll improve your powers of empathy, your curiosity…

We don’t say those things because they’d be a terrible marketing strategy, but they are nonetheless true.

It’s worth occasionally reminding ourselves of the power we have, all of us whose job is to seduce readers into thinking themselves into other people. As a translator I have made it possible for hundreds of thousands of English readers to spend some time in the heads of men, women, and children (and indeed some animals) in Angola or Spain, in the present or hundreds of years in the past or even the future, in Quebec and Brazil, in Guatemala and France, in Portugal, Spain, and Argentina. That experience we’re enabling in our readers is slowly, positively, transformative. Maybe what we’ve been doing isn’t enough to win a referendum, but it’s not nothing. We just need to keep doing it.

The event programmer at London’s biggest bookshop has invited those of us who work with European literature to gather in the shop this afternoon for a post-referendum drink. A sort of wake, if you like. It’s a thoughtful idea, to give us all an opportunity to be together to feel sad at the loss for a moment, for sure, but also crucially to remind each other why we do what we do, and why it’s needed more than ever. And then, when we’ve revived and remembered the power of that essential “why”—the empathy-building, the horizon-broadening—we will ready ourselves to get back to work. 


by Daniel Hahn
Writer, Editor, and Translator