Human Rights, Translation, PEN

Fifteen thousand words into translating Jergović’s monumental Rod (sticking with the title Kin for now), I’m taking a short break to mention the PEN Awards festivities just completed in NYC last week. I was able to attend for the first time, thanks to an invitation from my friend Esther, who knew I was going to be nearby for an ALTA board retreat and suggested I stick around for a day to see the show.

The absolute best thing about the awards and the celebration, in my opinion, is their democratic character, by which I mean the degree to which they recognize a wide variety of kinds of writing, from fiction and poetry, to theater, science writing, essay writing, (literary) sports writing, and literary translation. Not all the awards that PEN gives out were featured at the ceremony. One or two of the more prestigious ones (e.g., the Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction) are saved for the fundraising PEN Gala that takes place under different circumstances, but still it’s an impressive list, and the atmosphere of the event reflects both the quality of the work being celebrated and the commitment of PEN to issues of social justice and free expression.

This commitment may or may not be coterminous with literature in exactly the manner that PEN’s logo (see below) seems to imply. PEN logoThey certainly come together in enough cases in enough ways to make it hard to argue against an essentially human rights emphasis for an essentially literary organization. I wonder, however, whether we don’t miss something by making literature instrumental in this particular way. There will be kinds of writing that fit especially well as a result, e.g., socially and politically engaged writing, or writing that comes from particular parts of the world, or writing by those who have been historically marginalized, not allowed a voice. But there will also be kinds of writing, some of it exceptional and poignant, that does not really fit that well. Just literature in other words. It can be celebrated but it is less likely to be championed when literature and free expression, or rather free expression and then literature, is the mission.

I found myself mulling over such things during the ceremony and after, especially where translation is concerned. The awards for translation—there are four, one category for works in progress (the PEN/Heim Translation Awards), one for lifetime achievement (the PEN/Ralph Mannheim Award), and two for finished works (the PEN Translation Prize and the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation)—seem on first glance to be especially well suited to a human rights mission. But the criteria for these awards do not mention social justice explicitly and do not seem to be intended to champion the historically under-represented. The long lists include works from the Ancient World (sometimes frequently translated) and works from contemporary France, Russia, Argentina, or Mexico, once in a while China, Japan, or Korea, and once in a greater while India, Central Asia, or Africa. They include women and men on both sides of the translation process, though most of the authors of the original works are likely to be men. They include no or almost no translators of color (because there are almost no translators of color into English). I will leave it to someone else to actually count up the exact numbers in each category. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if just reading through them quickly as I did proves an inaccurate assessment. These are features of translated literature in general, not of these prizes in particular, so I do not mean them as a criticism.

Translation, by its very nature, is concerned with giving a voice to those who would not otherwise have one, and the goal of the under-represented is nowhere better served than by introducing the inscrutable foreignness of “all those other languages and cultures” into the complacency of the English-dominated (and often English-blinded) publishing world. I recall a grad student in fiction who didn’t want to come on one of the overseas writing workshops that Robin Hemley and I organized at the University of Iowa. He thought the presence of the translators would somehow lower the quality, taint the craft of the “real writers” in the group. Too bad for him that he did not come with us that year. He might have learned something about writing that he didn’t already know.