"In order to comprehend better, the children have to be close to the man who is speaking, to see every change of his facial expressions, every motion of his. I have observed more than once that those passages are best understood where the speaker makes a correct gesture or a correct intonation."
--Lev Tolstoy, “The School at Yasnaya Polyana”
In my first semester teaching English in a community college in New York City in the early 1990s, Dara Wong, from Hong Kong, always sat in the front row, right by my desk. She was eager and asked a lot of questions, but when I was speaking or reading aloud I would notice her watching my big chin and I would reflexively scrunch my neck or slouch. Seeing her eyes I wanted her to meet my eyes.
One afternoon she peered so hard at me as we were reading a short story I figured out she was looking at my mouth. I must have made a face, because she immediately said, "I need to see you pronounce."
"Ah!" I said.
One night a few years ago my wife and I went to see The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the French movie about an editor at Elle who is stricken with "locked-in syndrome." He is almost completely paralyzed; the doctors and therapists find he can communicate only by the blink of his left eye.
In a situation that seems to debar any possible comedy, it takes the protagonist, Jean-Dominique Bauby (played by Mathieu Amalric), or the wit of the director, Julian Schnabel, to clear the air and make us laugh. When he awakens into consciousness and sees two beautiful women hovering over him, gazing expectantly at him, he thinks (we hear his thoughts) something like, "Am I in heaven?" Put to rights by his earthly angels, one of the women trains him to use an alphabet board (she recites the most commonly used letters in French until he blinks at the one he needs); the other teaches him speech therapy. Both activities are agonizingly difficult and tedious for him, which the therapists both understand, but they are ever-patient and relentless.
Finally, he asks for his publisher to send someone to take dictation. He wants to write a book — the story of what we are watching. His scribe is of course beautiful (all the women in his life are beautiful). We see from his perspective how his hazy one-eyed vision flutters and focuses on each beauty’s mouth: lips, tongue, throat, all perfectly gorgeously demonstrating one sound after another. "This is torture!" thinks poor Bauby, who, we realize, is a modern-day Tantalus, so close and yet so far from his old customary womanizing.
In the theater during this scene I heard a few nervous laughs; I admit I laughed loudest, and my laughter wasn’t nervous. My wife glanced at me, and I shut my mouth and smiled.
Comforting myself that, though based on a true story, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is only a movie, and that one of its purposes is to have us identify with the impatient stricken hero, I certainly identified with him. How many times have I been just like Bauby, squirming, groaning, trying so hard to communicate but making incomprehensible sounds, in the presence of attentive, demanding attractive women. There, on the screen in front of us, were my last couple of years’ experience trying to learn Russian.
I would like to hide from myself and from my wife that one of the compensations for the grueling thousands of hours of learning Russian on my own has been those several dozens of hours with my tutors.
But back to our mouths. I watch theirs and they watch mine.
To speak Russian involves a contortion of any English-speaking person’s mouth. We must make ourselves conscious of what have become reflexive actions. We can feel the errors of our mouths as surely as we can see the lack of precision in our drawing. We hear the wobbling, sloppy pronunciation as surely as we see our shaky imprecise hand when we sketch a work of art at the museum. That vowel that one of my Russian tutors called "61" (an idea that helped me with my handwriting of it — forget about the loops! Write a miniature 61 and you’ll have the Russian vowel pronounced from the back of the throat and with pursed lips: “ih” [ы]). I don’t have the vocabulary or oral-agility to spew Russian, so I must slow down the way I would were I relearning a baseball swing or basketball jump-shot. My mouth can handle the move this way and that, but certainly not in and out and over there. And so I study Dina’s mouth — she has good teeth; I peer into Albina’s — she’s wearing lipstick today!; I notice Katya’s wearing dangly earrings! I watch and I imitate, even though I can’t see my own mouth. I feel it.
"Say something in Russian," my friend Jose told me when I got back from a trip to Russia. I am accustomed to speaking Spanish to Jose’s wife, but as I wound up and twisted my mouth into the delivery of an easy Russian phrase, Jose laughed. "Everybody, look at Bob’s mouth!"
And so we look deep into the mouths of our tutors and teachers, not the way one of my former dentists did. She looked in my mouth the way I look in the fridge — wincing, expectant, disappointed. She was not looking at a human being. She would say, as if speaking of car parts, the serial numbers of which she imagined I knew, "The seven’s in trouble. Number twelve's okay, after all, but let’s see how it’s doing in six months." My students and I, however, have a thing going on.
I don’t mind now when they peer into my mouth and avoid my eyes.
"I listen and look," says Irina, meeting my eyes and smiling, and then refocusing on my lips.
I admit in the classroom, or almost anywhere now, I usually like any attention I can get.
I admit it was also a pleasure, while taking my Russian lessons in St. Petersburg and New York and California, to gaze at the tutor’s mouth, to watch her pursing lips, her rolling tongue. Even when I was tired, even when I couldn’t think of the words I already knew, even when I was tongue-tied, even when I couldn’t get that sound right, even when I left a syllable out of the common greeting or glued together two distinct consonant clusters, even when I mistwisted vowels into round and pure Spanish, I could look at and appreciate a pretty mouth.
Bob Blaisdell is a professor of English at City University of New York’s Kingsborough Community College.
In 2007, before releasing its first title, Open Letter Books, a literary press based at the University of Rochester, began running a blog called Three Percent. The title comes from an estimate of how large a share of the annual U.S. book output consists of translations. If anything, that figure may have been a little high even at the time. Given the continuing surge in the number of new titles published each year (up 14 percent between 2009 and 2010, thanks in part to print-on-demand), the portion of books in translation is almost certainly shrinking. Whether or not globalization is an irresistible force, provincialism is an immovable object. But Open Letter, for its part, is dedicated to doing what it can. The press brings 10 foreign-language books into English each year (most of them novels) and Three Percent tracks what is happening in the world of literary translation. The blog also sponsors the annual Best Translated Book Award, now in its fifth year.
As it turns out, the latest work from Open Letter was originally written in English. The Three Percent Problem: Rants and Responses on Publishing, Translation, and the Future of Reading is an e-book consisting of material that Chad W. Post, who is OL's publisher, has culled from his blogging over the past four years. (“Some were speeches that I had to give and wrote them first for Three Percent,” Post said by e-mail. “Two birds and all that.”) It can be downloaded from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $2.99 -- with all of the profit going to pay translators. You could read all this material for free online, of course, but that would be miserly.
So cough up the three bucks, is what I’m trying to say. It goes for a good cause -- and besides, the book is a good deal, even apart from the low price. The pieces have been revised somewhat, and arranged by topic and theme, so that the whole thing now reads like a reasonably cohesive attempt to come to terms with the developments in book culture during the late ‘00s and early ‘10s. As John B. Thompson showed in his studyMerchants of Culture (Polity, 2010), dealing with any particular change in publishing requires you to grapple with the whole system -- the vast apparatus of production and distribution that connects writer and public. Translation is one aspect of it, of course, but it links up in various ways with the rest of publishing. While Post was making his running assessment of the state of literary translation, he also had to think about the new ways we buy and consume texts. One of essays is called “Reading in the Age of Screens,” which indeed could be an alternative title for the whole book.
Notification that the book was available came to me last week via Facebook, which is amusing given Post's definite ambivalence about the "all digital, all the time" tendency of contemporary life. "In the digital world," he said in a note, "we tend to stick to what we already know we want, reinforcing certain patterns, and losing some of the serendipity that a lot of readers point to as a huge influence on their life." True, and yet I did buy the book and start reading it (on a screen) within a few minutes, and was able to ask the author questions later that afternoon. The lack of serendipity was not a big problem.
One of the things I wanted to ask Post about was the peculiar role of academe in regard to translation. University presses undoubtedly account for a larger share of each year’s crop of translations than trade publishers do. At the same time, the actual work of bridging language barriers has long been undervalued as a form of scholarship. An uninspired monograph generates more institutional credit than a much-needed translation. The Modern Language Association began taking steps in a more encouraging direction a couple of years ago, when Catherine Porter (a prolific translator of books from French) was its president. And this spring, MLA issued guidelines for evaluating translations as part of peer review. But without stronger institutional recognition of the value of translation, the American tendency toward literary isolationism will only get worse -- apart from the occasional surge of interest in, say, Swedish mystery fiction.
According to a database kept by Three Percent, academic presses bring out roughly 15 percent of the translated fiction and poetry appearing each year. “I suspect this figure would be much higher if we tracked nonfiction works as well,” Post told me. “As it stands, nonprofits, university presses, and independents account for 80-85 percent of the published translations.” He mentioned the presses of Columbia University, Texas Tech, and the University of Nebraska as examples of imprints bringing out excellent books in translation. But talking with literary translators working in academe means hearing “a bunch of terrifying stories about their translation work interfering with getting tenure, etc.”
Even so, there are young professors interested in the study of translation -- “and surprisingly,” Post said, “I know at least a few who are being urged (and evaluated) by their departments to continue translating." At the same time, the classroom is a front line in the effort to overcome resistance or indifference to the rest of the world’s literature. “It always shocks me at how few books from France, Germany, Spain, Eastern Europe, etc., that students read during their studies,” he says. “It's as if American and British authors exist in a bubble, or as if students are just supposed to find out about the rich history of world literature in their spare time.... I think it would be ideal if more international works were taught in classes, giving students a chance to explore the issues of translation and helping defuse the trepidation some readers have when approaching a translated book.”
Open Letter works with the program in literary translation studies at the University of Rochester. Students “take a theory class, produce a portfolio of their own translations, and intern with the press.” Post admits that the trends in the publishing world do not point to a future in which translation will be a booming field. Thanks to "depletion in the number of bookstores (especially independents), increased focus on the bottom line, [and] the immense increases in the number of published titles," the portion of translated books "will remain around 3 percent, or even decrease when you start counting self-published titles.” At the same time, a number of small presses with a commitment to publishing translations have emerged over the past decade or so, besides Open Letter. They include Archipelago Books, the Center for the Art of Translation, Europa Editions, Melville House, PEN World Voices, and Words Without Borders.
Calling it an issue “as fraught as it could be,” Post notes that Amazon is not only “funding a lot of organizations involved in translation, but they've started AmazonCross, a publishing enterprise focused exclusively on literature in translation.” In 2010, the online bookseller gave $25,000 to the University of Rochester so that the Best Translated Book Awards could begin offering a cash prize to the winning authors and translators.
Someone willing and able to spend the money “could make a huge difference in the landscape for international literature in a short period of time,” Post told me. “This doesn't have to be a corporation at all.… I think that over the next decade, as more small presses come into existence thanks to advances in technology, changes in distribution methods, and general dissatisfaction with a lot of the stuff coming out from corporate presses, the audience for international literature will continue to increase. There may not be that many more titles being published, but the publishers doing this work will get more and more savvy at getting their titles into the hands of interested readers, academics, reviewers, etc. -- people who aren't put off by the idea of reading a translation.”
That last part is, in the final analysis, the real crux of the matter. Even when books do get translated, they are sometimes promoted very poorly. In The Three Percent Problem, Post refers to one university press that seems committed to describing the foreign novels it publishes in terms that are strangely unappealing. Without naming the press I can confirm that the complaint is all too valid: the publisher's catalog always makes the books sound desiccated, lugubrious, and inaction-packed.
It's the kind of thing that reinforces what Post calls "the overriding prejudice" about books in translation: "that they won't sell, that only the most sadomasochistic of people will read them, that reviewers will view these books as being secondary to the original version, etc." The only cure is for enthusiastic readers to communicate among themselves, to strike a spark of interest.