In the past few days, when I've taken a break from tending to this new home of mine on the web and attending to the RSS feeds which keep it going, I've stepped out into my actual town, Port Townsend, Washington. Without doing anything particularly physically involving—I shopped for food, went for a run, watched a movie, ate a meal with a friend—I nonetheless felt I had re-grounded myself in this particular place, this local-ity, and coming back to this website necessarily would mean somehow risking or at least diminishing that sense of place, that local character that's supposed to be its animating principle.
But I know that's not true, and this post is an initial attempt to explain why. What do I mean by “local”—especially in reference to a business, translation, which consists in moving things from one place, one language, to another?
All culture is local. That includes reading. I'm writing this in Port Townsend, but you might be reading it in New Zealand or in Germany. You can only read where your eyes are; wherever you are, whatever language you read becomes one of the languages of that place. On Saturday, I watched a film set in Quito, Ecuador, brought here by the local film festival. I don't speak Spanish, but between Italian and Portuguese and the subtitles I think I followed many of the subtleties of the language. But the characters in the movie—doctors, taxi drivers, mothers, sons—did not exist inside of any language. They were simply people going about their lives, going about their city, just like us in the audience. For readers, translation removes that barrier of language and makes it possible to read and appreciate the culture of another place—without having to go there ourselves.
Port Townsend is at the end of a peninsula; to get here, you have to be going here. (Local legend holds that Santa makes it his first stop, but I'm sure that's only because it's not on the way to any place else.) At the farmer's market on Saturday, I bought fresh, local ingredients and told the farmers what I would be cooking with them. When I described jota as "kind of an Italian stew with sauerkraut" they looked puzzled—what do stew or sauerkraut have to do with Italian cooking?—but when I explained that it came from the north-east corner of Italy where Slavic and Austrian influences date back centuries, they understood. Jota may have its origin in a specific place, but it can be recreated and appreciated anywhere. Like a work of literature.
Nothing has just one home. One of the messages of Herta Müller’s Nobel lecture on Monday was the pettiness of nationalism. She quoted her grandfather: “When the flags start to flutter, common sense slides right into the trumpet.” Müller's family belonged to the German minority in Romania—a minority which has apparently gained local support in recent years, a surprise in a part of the world where national and ethnic identities have recently been more divisive than unifying. (That support appears not to have been enough to turn the presidential election.)
But, in the context of Müller's Nobel win—and in response to some direct snubs of American literature by people involved with the Nobel Prize—The New York Times itself didn't point to how widely our culture is accepted abroad, the apparent hunger of people everywhere for translations of American books, Dan Brown above all. Instead, the NYT article lauded the American genius for attracting and absorbing people from other cultures and embracing their hybrid products—written in America, in English—in service of the expansion of American culture, thus (the article claimed) "enriching the world’s understanding of itself." That article has been sliced and diced already (for instance here, here, and again here), but this attitude really should come as no surprise.
What The New York Times praises is absorbing other cultures and reading their writers only when they've learned English: waiting for the world to come to us, recognizing our ground as the only valid and relevant place for a writer to stand. Even when we do make the effort, the translator Johannes Göransson finds that we want to be recognized and praised for that effort—to the exclusion of notice of the foreign work or author. In an interview he says, "Part of the problem with a lot of translation is that the way they are packaged has sort of ghettoized them as the foreign text. And we go to them out of some kind of ethical duty to engage with the foreign and widen our horizons and learn more about foreign cultures." What that attitude is really looking for is validation of its own culture.
That's very different from what translators try to do: we make the effort ourselves to understand another culture and language and recreate them, to the best of our abilities, in our specific time and place. Translation does not appropriate or replace the original work; it allows the work to exist in two places at once. Thus when a Brazilian blog laments about a previous Nobel laureate that "there are no books by Szymborska available in Portuguese" ("não há nenhum livro de Szymborska disponível em português"), they don't dismiss her as unworthy of being read, but point to English-language sources. That's part of what the saying Literature is universal means: you can read it where you are, in your language—or in whatever language you can get it in.
Be here now. In The New York Times again (sorry, but they do stick out, even from way over here in the opposite corner of the country) we read that a historic city in this rainy region is tired of being overlooked because it happens to share a name with that other Vancouver. I used to live in Bloomington, Indiana, a town without a commercial airport; I heard many tales of people who bought tickets for Bloomington, Illinois, instead (those I-states are all the same). Names are important, but place is a lot more specific than that.
One of the things that happens when you actually inhabit the place where you live is that you start to care about your neighbors: you buy your food locally, you go to local theater, you read the local paper. Maybe it can't be absolute—maybe they don't make cars or wine or computers in your town—but you do what you can. Not out of nationalism, but out of interest in the welfare of your home place. Even the Times has jumped on the bandwagon, by letting you click to find books at your local bookstore. (My own clicky-buttons will come soon—at this point I assume my readership is too small for it to represent much in terms of lost income.)
In terms of translation, that means it's OK to import something when it doesn't grow natively where you are. But you should try to recreate it sensitively, not as a hybrid or an adaptation.
Cyberspace is nowhere. Independent businesses are inherently more local than big companies—and I'm not even talking about the multinational conglomerates. In the wake of Borders UK's bankruptcy, there are still people who see a future for bookselling and a value to browsing in person in a physical store, curated by live humans. I use the word "curated" deliberately; as I tried to argue in my post on book covers, the role of the editors, librarians, booksellers, and reviewers who help us figure out what to read needs to be much more visible. The translator, too, has been invisible—and also plays a curatorial role in identifying what to translate. The less visible and the more virtual all these steps become, the more we are at risk of losing our sense of where we are. (Today's Port Townsend Leader has a great op-ed on supporting independent bookstores—but it's only available in the print edition. I guess you had to be here.)
Meanwhile, even some of the smaller independent publishers apparently think that "people out there don’t really read" and Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co. has to move to survive. Real people exist everywhere—and wherever people are, that place matters.
A place emerges from what goes on there. Home stretch here, folks.
So what I guess I'm arguing—and I do apologize for not doing it with all the latest hip theoretical terminology—is that culture happens in the act and in the place of translation and of reading, not just in the act and place of writing. And that if we want local culture to thrive, it's not necessary that every step of creation and curation happen locally, but simply that we make the most of what is available. That means reading local authors—and local translators, even when they're translating work from far away. That means reading the local newspaper, and books published by local presses. That means going to readings. That means making yourself visible as a local reader or writer or translator, as someone who expects the library or bookstore to stock the latest translations, because you'll want to read them. When you make yourself visible, you change, ever so slightly, the place where you are.
American publishing has long been centered in New York and many of the people doing great work in translation and translation publishing are still there. But now they're also in San Francisco, in Rochester (New York, not Minnesota!), in Champaign, in Northampton. It can happen anywhere—thanks in part to the internet. But the internet has a disturbing tendency to make work invisible, to un-tether it from person and place.
One of the things the internet was supposed to bring was "mass customization." That doesn't seem to have happened—unless you count the customization of the internet itself, with Web 2.0 and social technologies. Instead, it seems possible that one of the emerging benefits of the web's status as "no-place" is that it makes a great tool for finding out about where you are.
In the end, I guess that's what I'm doing here, too: finding out about where I am.