LES EYZIES-DE-TAYAC, France — In college in the 1990s, I happened upon a Brazilian writer so sensational that I was sure she must be a household name. And she was — in Curitiba or Maranhão. Outside Brazil, it seemed, nobody knew of Clarice Lispector.
My freshman year, I’d abandoned studying Chinese when our professor said it’d be 10 years before we’d be able to decipher a newspaper. I switched to Portuguese, despite zero knowledge of the language or culture.
Eventually we started reading short Brazilian works. One of these, a 1977 novella by Lispector called “The Hour of the Star,” changed my life. Though its nuances were lost on me, I sensed the strange beauty in the story of a poor girl in Rio de Janeiro. The author was the book’s most forceful presence, and I wanted to learn everything about her. Who was the woman who peered from the back cover like an exiled empress?
后来我们开始阅读巴西的短篇作品。在这当中，利斯佩克托的《星辰时刻》（The Hour of the Star）改变了我一生。虽然我想不起详细内容，但我从这位里约热内卢贫苦女孩的故事中，感受到奇异的美。作家本人是这本书中最有力的存在，我想要了解她的一切。这个如同被流放的女王一般在封底凝视一切的女人，究竟是谁？
As I later learned, Lispector’s first name was enough to identify her to most Brazilians. But two decades after her death in 1977, she remained virtually untranslated; among English speakers, she was unknown outside some academic circles. One pleasure of discovering a great writer is the ability to share her work, and I was stymied. Lispector’s obscurity reinforced itself. People couldn’t care about someone they couldn’t read. And if they couldn’t read her, they couldn’t become interested.
It took me years to realize that this vicious cycle would not magically be broken. I started writing Lispector’s biography, a project that took five years. The result, “Why This World,” generated interest in a series of English translations of her novels. So far, these have taken another five years. In retrospect, Chinese would have been quicker.
我花了好几年才明白，没有什么魔法可以打破这个恶性循环。我花了五年写作利斯佩克托的传记。过了五年以后，这本传记作品《为何生于此世》（Why This World）让人有兴趣将她的作品译成英文。回想起来，学中文可能更快。
The past decade has given me time to reflect on the main cause of Lispector’s obscurity: the increasing global dominance of English. An international tongue may help tourists, but it is turning literature into a one-way street. Not only does this make life harder for contemporary writers, the situation is even worse for those, like Lispector, who can no longer speak for themselves.
Writers who work in English can’t be faulted for profiting from a situation that has developed over centuries. But since we do profit from it, it’s partly up to us to try to remedy it.
In the United States and Britain, translations represent just 3 percent of the book market. In Russia, in contrast, translated titles accounted for 10.5 percent of the market in 2013; in China, they make up around 7 percent. In the Netherlands, some 75 percent of all books produced are translations, according to 2013 statistics — and about 10 percent of all general interest books sold are original, English-language versions. Not only do foreign writers face obstacles to being read abroad, then, they are being crowded out of bookstores in their own countries. The English language, like rats or kudzu, has become an invasive species.
Some prominent English-language writers are already fighting this trend. Jonathan Franzen has translated “Spring Awakening,” by the fin-de-siècle German dramatist Frank Wedekind, and the essays of Viennese satirist Karl Kraus. Lydia Davis alternates between French translation and her own writing. Elizabeth Kostova, an American novelist, started a foundation in 2007 to bring Bulgarian writers into English.
许多著名的英文作家已经挺身抵抗这个趋势。乔纳森‧弗兰岑（Jonathan Franzen）翻译了十九世纪末德国剧作家弗兰克‧魏德凯（Frank Wedekind）的《春之苏醒》（Spring Awakening），以及维也纳讽刺作家卡尔‧克劳斯（Karl Kraus）的散文。莉迪亚‧戴维斯（Lydia Davis）轮番进行法文译作与自身写作的工作。美国小说家伊莉莎白‧柯斯托娃（Elizabeth Kostova）也在2007年成立基金会，将保加利亚作家的作品翻成英文。
Because there are so many English-language readers, reaching this market has a powerful effect. Thanks to Ms. Kostova, contemporary Bulgarian writers have a chance at being known internationally. Once Lispector was translated into English, she could be read in other countries, including by editors from China to Ukraine who are trying to get her published locally.
It shouldn’t be assumed, as I long did, that all great foreign writers will eventually reach English-language bookstores. As publication in English becomes more important, even editors open to translations are overwhelmed. （And few read Norwegian.） For every Karl Ove Knausgaard or Elena Ferrante, who are translated almost as soon as they appear in Norwegian or Italian, there are many Lispectors.
我们不能只是想当然地以为，所有伟大的外文作家最终都进入英文书店，我有很长一段时间就是这么想的。随着英文出版的重要性与日俱增，就算是欢迎译作的编辑都会喘不过气。文坛上总会出现一位卡尔‧奥韦‧诺斯加德（Karl Ove Knausgaard）或是埃琳娜‧费兰特（Elena Ferrante）这种母语作品一推出就被翻成其他语言的作家。但在此同时，也有许多作家像利斯佩克托一样，湮没于书海之中。
Taking them on, after all, is an act of faith. At my first publishing job, in New York, I tried to convince my boss that a manuscript that seemed to blend sci-fi with bad porn was the work of an important new writer causing a stir in France. Though unable to read French, one editor took my word for it. The manuscript was “Elementary Particles,” by Michel Houellebecq. Every translation represents a similar leap.
说到底，承担这个任务是出于一种信念。我在纽约做第一份出版工作时，曾试图说服老板相信，一份似乎将科幻与色情融合在一起的手稿，出自一名在法国引起轰动的重要新作家之手。虽然不懂法语，一名编辑相信了我的话。这份手稿就是米歇尔·维勒贝克（Michel Houellebecq）的《基本粒子》（Elementary Particles）。每部译作都是一个类似的跨越。
The dream of a global literary community is not new. But as globalization has not meant greater political or economic equality, cultural cosmopolitanism has not been guaranteed by instant communication and inexpensive travel. These do, however, present significant new opportunities for literary activism.
Writers working in English who know another language can help make connections and advocate for their foreign colleagues. Contacts are perhaps writers’ most valuable assets. Only a few people know everybody, but most of us know somebody. Just one or two contacts — an editor, an agent — can make a difference for a foreign writer. This includes links to fellowships, writing programs, and retreats that non-English-language writers haven’t heard about.
Even writers who beat the odds and are published in English face difficulty finding an audience, largely because they don’t have the networks they do at home. Since translations are less frequently reviewed, people who might be interested are less likely to hear about them. English-language writers can help by reviewing foreign works that make it into English, or interviewing their authors, taking advantage of the amplifying effects of social media.
Few things are lonelier than the solitary task of confronting the blank page for years on end. Literature, on the other hand, is made by a community: present and past, dead and alive. Everyone loses when books become yet another commodity, produced by a few big names. It’s one thing if everyone wears the same shoes or drinks the same soda. But the world of literature is the last place in which globalization should mean homogeneity.