- On Decentralizing Gatekeeping in the US Literary-Translation World
Emily Wilson's translation of Homer's Odyssey has been rightfully celebrated. She brilliantly pares back all the fustian padding that's been added to this text by translators over the years, and is able to do so because she has a poet's sense of which words to select and where to put them. Her translation makes up in incisiveness what it lacks in verbosity. (Her work is often referred to as "the first Odyssey translation by a woman"; I would suggest that this be corrected to read "the first published translation of the Odyssey by a woman"; surely there were others that never saw print, at least not under their originator's names.) Wilson's Odyssey has also been called a "feminist" translation, though Wilson has made a point of explaining that she didn't add any feminist material to the translation, just avoided the sorts of sexist interpretations included in earlier versions, such as when Odysseus orders the death of the enslaved young women who have been forced to "entertain" (by submitting to rape) male visitors to his home. Wilson's translation describes these "female persons"—as the Greek says—not as whores or concubines (as in earlier renditions) but as "the girls." This is an excellent reminder of the power of the translator to shape a narrative. It took a woman's eye to notice the unhelpful storytelling earlier translators were practicing without realizing it.
We women translators should also keep in mind our awesome power as curators of a canon. We've all heard translators bemoaning the fact that it's so difficult to find publishers for projects we ourselves originate, that it's always publishers doing the selecting. (I too am guilty of such moaning.) But [End Page 137] I think the landscape has been shifting over the past twenty years, and it is becoming increasingly possible for translators to bring visibility to projects they themselves have decided to champion. Many of the new smaller publishers specializing in translation are now more open to being approached by translators than the larger houses were in the past (and perhaps still are). Fellowships like the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants and the American Literary Translators Association Travel Fellowships give emerging translators a shot at a bit of limelight, making it possible for translators to launch their careers while working on books of their own choosing.
I believe that decentralizing literary gatekeeping—as facilitated by this new form of funding for translations—is crucial for the well-being of our literary landscape. Why not maximize the number of gatekeepers when it comes to making decisions about who and what will get published in English translation? Women authors have historically been (and still are) underrepresented in the English-language translation market, along with writers of color and LGBTQ+ writers, all of whom may already have been marginalized in their original countries and languages. Translators, who are typically immersed in the culture of more than one country, are ideally positioned to sleuth out brilliant writers who have been overlooked at different points in the literary pipeline. Decentralizing power in the decision-making process that determines which projects will receive attention (and funding) is an excellent way to help cultivate a diverse, vibrant literary landscape in English translation. Let's make sure that the question, "What have you been reading in other languages that's interesting?" goes out to as wide a range of people as possible, and let's make sure we pay attention to their answers.
Susan Bernofsky directs the program in literary translation at Columbia University. A Guggenheim fellow, she has translated classic works by Robert Walser, Franz Kafka, and Hermann Hesse. Her translation of Jenny Erpenbeck's novel The End of Days (2014) won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the Schlegel-Tieck Translation Prize, the Ungar Award for Literary Translation, and the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize. Her translation of Yoko Tawada's novel Memoirs of a Polar Bear (2016) won the inaugural Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.