The Lingua Franca: Colin Thubron on translated literature

Colin Thubron

Filed under: Non-fiction

The President’s address to the AGM: 28 June 2012

One of the most shocking statistics in British publishing concerns that difficult and risk-prone genre: the literary translation.

The Book Trust puts the proportion of foreign books published in England at a wretched three per cent of the total published. In France, so admirably jealous of its own culture, the proportion is 26 per cent. The Germans publish twice as much foreign literature as we do.  The splendid Harvill imprint, under Christopher MacLehose, published or revived more than 300 translated titles over twenty years, from Haruki Murakami to Javier Marias and Jose Saramago, but he reckoned that the sales of even the finest averaged between only 1,500 and 6,000 copies.

Yet foreign writers long for that elusive publication into English.   Recently Mikhail Shishkin, who has won every great prize in Russia, delightedly told me he hoped to be published by a small American imprint this year. By contrast, English literature published abroad amounts to six times as much as any competing language. Many authors have had the experience of being eagerly embraced by the reading public overseas, because we carry with us the cachet of the dominant language. One of the more curious UNESCO statistics catalogues the leading authors published globally,  and five out of seven wrote (or are writing) in English. They are, in descending order: Agatha Christie (way ahead), then Jules Verne, Shakespeare, Enid Blyton, Lenin, Danielle Steele and Barbara Cartland.

But of course it wasn’t always so. For centuries Latin, not English, was the lingua franca of the Western world. In 1582 the Elizabethan humanist Richard Mulcaster found himself defending English because many around him thought it a ‘mere vernacular’ that could not be used to express great and complex thoughts. ‘Our English tongue is of small reach,’ he wrote, ‘– it stretcheth no farther than this island of ours – nay, not [even] there over all.’

In a contemporary dialogue of John Florio, the translator of Montaigne, one interlocutor asks another: ‘[W]hat think you of this English tongue?’  The other responds, ‘It is a language that wyl do you good in England, but passe Dover, it is worth nothing.’

If we listen now to Mowbray’s speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II, as he is sentenced to exile abroad, we can imagine the plight of any modern emigrant from a minority culture:

The language I have learn’d these forty years,

My native English, now I must forego…

Within my mouth you have engaol’d my tongue,

Doubly portcullis’d with my teeth and lips…

What is thy sentence then but speechless death…?

At that time England was imitating and translating works from Italian, French, Spanish, German, even Dutch, but virtually nothing was happening in the other direction.  The sonnets of Petrarch, Lope de Vega and Ronsard were being read and translated, but the first translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets was probably not until 1807, in German.

By then, of course, English – and the British Empire – are spreading over the globe.  And the British citizen abroad is behaving increasingly as if he owned it.  As early as 1814 we find Mary Shelley, the moment she has crossed the Channel, writing:  ‘There is something very pleasing in the manners and appearance of the people of Calais, that prepossesses you in their favour.  A national reflection might occur, that when Edward III took Calais, he turned out the old inhabitants, and peopled it almost entirely with our own countrymen.’   And some 50 years later a diplomat writes home from Paris, that  ‘the French have a notion that go where you may, to the top of a pyramid or the top of Mont Blanc, there you will find an Englishman, reading a newspaper’.

As for English itself, the German Jakob Grimm, the leading philologist of his age, wrote in 1851 that English ‘may be called justly a language of the world…destined to reign in future with still more extensive sway over all quarters of the globe.’

It was not only the voice of empire, but the tongue of civilisation. As late as 1910, inaugurating the semi-autonomous Academic Committee of the Royal Society of Literature, Edmund Gosse proclaimed: ‘The aims of an Academy of Letters…would be, to protect the English language against all attempts to reduce it to vulgarity, and to hold up a standard of purity and good taste in style.’

In today’s world, where English has fractured into something so multi-racial and differently energised, this Canute-like proclamation seems to echo from another age.

As the twentieth century wears on, the status of the English language, abetted by an increasingly powerful United States, advances in the slipstream of the vanishing empire.  The British, by now, are lazy linguists.  We remain so still.  It is the smaller nations, whose languages nobody will learn, who become, in a sense, least provincial.  Even after the end of the Second World War, the British remain stubbornly monolingual.

In 1953 we find the journalist E. Arnot Robinson promoting a revision of the arrogant English phrase books that had served travellers up until then.  She begs a female friend, before travelling to Greece, to remember at least the all-purpose word ‘thembirazi’, which basically means ‘It doesn’t matter in the least.’  The friend used this to great appreciation, until nemesis came on Easter Sunday morning, when she found herself in a crowded village square.  People kept jostling her and saying something, and since she concluded that they were apologising for bumping into her, she kept responding, ‘Thembirazi.’ But on Easter Sunday the Greeks have a custom of greeting one another with the words ‘Christ is risen’, and to be told it didn’t matter in the least was not endearing.

The continuing predominance of English accelerates, above all, the death of languages. ‘Words, those guardians of meaning,’ wrote the playwright Arthur Adamov, ‘are not immortal, and not invulnerable…Like men, words suffer…Some can survive, others are incurable.’  As Darwin proclaimed: ‘A language, like a species, when once extinct…never reappears.’

The eminent philologist David Crystal, indeed, fears a kind of linguistic Darwinism, in which only English will substantially survive.  He anticipates that of the 6,000 or so languages in the world, about half will have disappeared in the course of this century.  That means one language every two weeks or so.    If English ‘is by then the only language left to be learned,’ he writes, ‘it will have been the greatest intellectual disaster that the planet has ever known.’

A language dies out when the last person to speak it dies; or when the second-last person dies, since the survivor has nobody left to speak it to.

And with every language that dies, of course, a particular sensibility – and a particular grammar – dies too.  No culture is so poor that it has nothing to tell the others, and at its widest a whole national psyche may be fleetingly transmitted, as by the Chinese writers Ma Jian and the Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian, whose sensibility is so different from our own that it becomes all the more fascinating and important to sense it.

At the least, small new distinctions may surface.  I remember, when learning Russian years ago, our old Ukrainian teacher announcing to the class that we would now discuss the word ‘almost’. Sick of the intricacies of Russian grammar, we all groaned in unison.  Surely ‘almost’ just meant ‘almost’?  What more could be done with it?  But no, he remarked remorselessly.  This morning he almost ran over a dog.  He had, also, almost finished drinking the glass of water he was holding. He pointed out that he had three quarters finished the water, but that he did not three quarters run over the dog.  He missed it altogether. Two Russian words –едва and поҷтu – carried two different concepts that were obscured by the English.

We try, of course – beside celebrating the richness and diversity of English – to redress the imbalance of that miserly three per cent.  There is the sterling work of International PEN; there are the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Man Booker International Prize, the Oxford-Weidenfeld translation award and various others.  Our own small efforts include the Tagore lectures, devoted to the Indian sub-continent, the Skidelsky lectures on Russian writing, and a partnership with the European Commission Representation in the UK.

But a translated language, of course, is not the thing itself.  An obsession with power imbalance may even see it as an act of appropriation, a kind of neo-colonialism at work.  But what else is to be done?

With all our misgivings about the limits of translation, translators are the unsung heroines and heroes of literature.  A full-time translator in this country earns an average of just £15,000 a year – and that is more than in most European countries.  In the Czech Republic, for instance, it’s £2,000.   ‘Great translators,’ wrote George Steiner, ‘act as a kind of living mirror.  They offer to the original not an equivalence, for there can be none, but a vital counterpoise, an echo, faithful yet autonomous… An act of translation is an act of love.  Where it fails, through immodesty or blurred perception, it traduces.  Where it succeeds, it transfigures.’

I will end with a little-known moment in the history of the Royal Society of Literature.

In 1916, at the height of the First World War, the Society’s proclaimed mission – ‘to unite and extend the general interest of literature’ – suddenly included the vitalising influence of literatures other than its own.  Under the pressure of war, a world-embracing entente was proposed, in which the countries not only of the British Commonwealth and Europe, but Russia (the Revolution was still inconceivable), the Americas and even the Far East, were conceived as drawing together in a cultural amity which would unite and transform them.  Numberless committees were formed, spawning their attendant sub-committees; foreign contacts were made.   Francis Younghusband, chairman of the Oriental sub-committee, wrote that ‘We hope that each may be imbued and penetrated with the culture of all the others…’   And the RSL lectures became correspondingly more international.  It was like some ghostly prefiguration of the League of Nations.

Predictably, after the pressure of war ends, the ideals dissipate. The committees disappear. The foreign contacts peter out. But despite all this – and despite its high-flown rhetoric and impracticality – the Society had momentarily opened a door through which a wider future might enter.

Related RSL Fellows

Colin Thubron 1969