Translation is a kind of traffic, in nearly every sense of the word. There’s the most obvious sense, in that translations cross borders of time, place, and culture, moving from one language into another.
But traffic’s other meaning—that is, the buying and selling of goods—also applies. Translators themselves can be said to traffic in words, sounds, images, and more; whether what is trafficked is tangible or intangible, it’s implied that what is bought, sold, and bartered is in any case commodified. When we think about traffic we also inevitably think about congestion, about impediments to smooth circulation—of vehicles, of course, but also, by extension, of ideas and things. While translations do cross borders, broadening our cultural knowledge as they present one language in the terms of another, they can also become an impediment to free communication. As a translator of contemporary Japanese fiction, I’ve seen both the flow and the congestion, and have witnessed at close range the unintended consequences—and our lack of control as translators—when it comes to the way our texts move or fail to move across borders.
For the past decade or so I’ve been working on what is essentially an ethnography of the publishing industry, primarily in Tokyo and New York, and the way the intersection—and often the collision—of aesthetic and economic considerations influences what gets translated, how it is translated, and how it is marketed and consumed in another literary context. That is, ultimately, how the traffic of translation is subject to the larger economic concerns of the publishing industry, and how these concerns shape a canon of literature in translation that may bear little resemblance to that in the source literature and culture, but that comes to play an important role in the way that culture or nation is perceived in the national imagination of the target culture.
So, for example, reducing the argument to its simplest terms, in the 1950s and 60s, Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata were translated, marketed, and read in the US as representatives of a newly docile, aestheticized, Zen-like Japanese culture that was explicitly meant (by translators and publishers and perhaps policy experts as well) to replace the bellicose wartime image of Japan, as Edward Fowler has argued. This was one piece of a general rehabilitation strategy for the country in concert with promoting its new role as a reliable ally in the US Cold War calculus. At the same time, however, this image bore little resemblance to the positions Kawabata and Mishima often occupied in the domestic Japanese literary canon or marketplace.
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But first it’s helpful to take a close look at the example of Murakami, in order to see some of the ways literary traffic is affected by and, in some cases, radically altered by the economic considerations that accompany the movement of literary products through global markets. Translation, in this context, is no longer the activity of a single individual—the one traditionally known as the “translator”—but is altered and inflected by numerous other actors. I think of all this as “translation discourse”—that is, the tacit conversations between and negotiations among translators and, in no particular order, literary agents, editors, publishers, copy editors, jacket designers, marketing managers, sales representatives, book reviewers, and others who, in one way or another, have a say in what gets chosen for translation, who is chosen to translate it, how it gets translated, how it gets edited, how it gets marketed, and who, ultimately, will be likely to read it—and even how they are likely to react to it.
Link to the rest at LitHub