I’ve just gotten around to the November Harper’s, and I was struck by the first letter to the editor, which puts into perspective the recent flurry of attention to the Arab Human Development Report commissioned by the UN. Everyone who discusses the report mentions the appalling statistic that “the whole Arab world translates about 330 books annually.” I’ll let Esther Allen take it from there:
In his reply to Edward Said in the September Letters section, Paul Kennedy alludes to the worrisome news about the cultural stagnation of the Arab world that U.S. pundits have been clucking their tongues over all summer: according to a recent United Nations Development Programme report, the entire Arab world, with a population of 280 million, translates only about 330 books per year.
Gratifying as it has been to see so many of our nation’s spokespeople in agreement that the number of translations is a key indicator of a region’s cultural vibrancy, I can’t help noting, at the same time, a certain grim hilarity. Here in the United States, at the cosmopolitan heart of the universe, with a population of 285 million and a publishing industry that churns out well over 100,000 books per year, we publish—well, what do you know—about 330 books in translation per year. (That figure excludes only technical and scientific treatises.)
The PEN Translation Committee receives about 175 to 225 submissions each year for its PEN Book-of-the-Month-Club Translation Prize, and they actively seek out every translation published in the country. Annotated Books Received, a publication of the American Literary Translators Association, lists about 400 books per year, including a grand total of thirteen books translated from Arabic in the last four years. “Literary” translation, I hasten to add, refers in this context not only to fiction and poetry but to history, journalism, biography, criticism, every category of book written for a general audience, and several categories—e.g., literary theory, philosophy—that are not.
This has been the case for decades; if there ever was a Golden Age of Translation in the United States of America, no one seems to know when it occurred. Yet the trend has never given rise to a UNDP report or any general voicings of dismay in the columns of the national print media. But now that we seem to be reaching such a stirring consensus on the importance of translation as an indicator of cultural well-being, I, for one, am very curious to see what our leaders will do to combat the lamentable isolation and stagnation in which we are foundering.
New York City