A few months ago, in this same note, I wrote a few reflections on the limited number of translations into English published in the United States (around three percent of all books published in this country are translations). There are countless articles online that try to explain why Americans don’t read fiction written in other languages, especially given the number of top-notch writers who write in other languages and whose work is still either ignored or little-known in English. There are many explanations for this phenomenon: some point toward American readers’ lack of interest in the cultures of other countries; others to the classic problems of the market along with a predominantly white publishing world. At any rate, this less-than-invigorating three percent is troubling, and no easy solution to the problem presents itself.
Inversely, the Latin American literary market is primarily made up of books in translation: transnational presses continue to inundate our markets with literature written in English. The same with cinema. We see it and we read it. The world may not be indifferent to us, but it is different for us than for the great metropolitan centers. Many causes play into the cultural periphery’s never reaching the center. With just a little scrutiny, we come across some rather worrying surprises. For example, the renowned critic Harold Bloom made no effort to hide the face that, in his opinion, the Western canon was made up primarily of works written in English, with Shakespeare representing “the best that has been thought and said” in the West, to use Matthew Arnold’s famous words. For the same reason, it is unsurprising that many centers of Latin American studies in U.S. universities still maintain their names and carry out their activities in English. Is it not a little strange that so many important conferences in this country are not presented with simultaneous interpretation, as they so commonly are in our countries? The United States has no official language, but, truth be told, when it comes to literature, no constitutional decree is necessary to make one specific tongue the language of the market and of the academy.
This is no exaggeration. An example, backing this up, is the scandal provoked in recent weeks by the novel American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins.. I won’t repeat here what has been said, and is still being said, online and on social media (Myriam Gurba, Ignacio Sánchez Prado, and Nicolás Medina Mora, among many others, have opened up an interesting debate on the subject). The novel became famous, sadly, not due to its sales or its literary quality, but due to the complaints of the Latino community of the United States, who saw in this work of “fiction” an insulting representation of Mexico and its culture. And it’s true. Cummins’ novel proves, once again, that the image still held of Mexico in the United States (which we can affirm, not arbitrarily, is the same image as that of the rest of Latin America) is packed with the same deplorable stereotypes as ever. I should clarify that the novel’s quality is not the problem in and of itself. Judging a novel as a literary text is up to each individual reader. Nevertheless, what is not neutral here is the machinery of publishing (Flatiron Books) that believed this set of false, exaggerated ideas about Mexico would fit in with the tastes of the average U.S. reader, to the extent that Cummins was compared to Steinbeck and applauded by Oprah and Stephen King. With total ignorance of Mexico, an author writing in English can receive a seven-figure advance for publishing a novel that the U.S. Latino community has deemed shameful on almost all the possible levels on which one can read a literary text about immigration on the southern border of the United States.
What’s wrong here? Is it the 97% of readers who apparently don’t want to read translated books, or the U.S. publishing industry that has no interest in publishing authors other than those who write in English? The question is simple; the answer is not. The fact is, within this panorama, Latin American literature represents a fraction of the three percent. Things can always get worse, as Murphy wisely observed. This gives us something to think about, especially in the university environment. After so many courses dedicated to learning Spanish in U.S. universities, study abroad programs, courses on translation and Latin American literature and culture, etc., all this effort and the millions of dollars invested in it have had no real impact on the reception of Latin American literature (or on how Latin America is seen and understood, in English or in Spanish) in this country. Not to mention the big publishing world (the heroic task of publishing in translation depends, almost always, on the committed and conscientious work of small, independent presses spread throughout the United States). All of this seems to suggest that English will continue to be the literary language of the United States, at least for a long while to come.
Nonetheless, in this context, bilingual initiatives like Latin American Literature Today take on special significance. Our idea is to put forth another perspective, to open a window to English-reading audiences precisely through translation. And we feel especially happy, since with this new issue we have just completed our third year of publication. In this thirteenth issue of LALT, Delfina Cabrera has organized an interesting front-cover dossier on Mario Bellatin, whom a decade ago was already considered by The New York Times as “one of the leading voices in experimental Spanish-language fiction.” In his own country of origin (Bellatin is Mexican, but grew up in Peru), authors like Mario Vargas Llosa and Alonso Cueto have deemed him one of the most interesting voices of contemporary Latin American narrative. The issue’s other dossier was compiled by Pablo Brodsky, and centers on an extravagance and an extravagant man, perhaps also paying a long-standing debt. This dossier is about the Chilean writer Juan Emar, a mythical, cult writer who wrote a work as long as it is complex: Umbral (published in its entirety by the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile in 1996).
This issue brings many more surprises besides: an interview by Claudia Cavallín with Diamela Eltit, who visited the University of Oklahoma last October as a specially invited speaker at the Tierra Tinta conference; an unpublished translation by Andrew Adair of a short story by Rosario Castellanos, “Little Gray Head”; in indigenous literature, poems by Nahuatl poet Martín Tonalmeyotl; in Brazilian literature, more new things: translations by Alexis Leviting of three poems by the Brazilian poet Salgado Maranhão. In previews, we highlight a fragment of Alberto Chimal’s novel The Most Fragile Objects, translated by our good friend George Henson. In our “On Translation” section, we have several firsts: Nurit Kasztelan, Maureen Shaughnessy, and Beatriz Badikian-Gartler tell us about their experiences in translation. It must be said, in Beatriz Badikian-Gartler’s words, that “each theorist presents his or her translation methodology with a passion that betrays personal involvement.” The same could be said of translators themselves. This is not a uniform trade; on the contrary, with each passing day I see it as a more deeply personal literary form.
Much more awaits in this new boatload of Latin American literature. It would be impossible to include all we’ve done in these few lines. We simply hope that our readers will read and enjoy this new offering of Latin American Literature Today.
Translated by Arthur Dixon