TALKS RundUmschau A New Translation Manifesto Calls for Change
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A New Translation Manifesto Calls for Change

In the spring of 1970, the American PEN’s Translation Committee issued its first manifesto and Translator’s Bill of Rights. They opened with a call for action: “For too long,” they proclaimed “[translators] have been the lost children in the enchanted forest of literature. Their names are usually forgotten, they are grotesquely underpaid, and their services, however skillfully rendered, are regarded with the slightly patronizing and pitying respect formerly reserved for junior housemaids.” In the five decades since, some conditions have changed for translators, but important ones have not. We’re still in the enchanted forest and we’re slightly less lost: translators’ names increasingly appear on the cover, international prizes have been established recognizing translators at different stages of their careers, more than a dozen small presses devoted exclusively or primarily to works in translation have been founded in the United States and Britain in the last twenty years, copyright and royalties are granted more often as a matter of course, and there are many more stipends and grants available than before. And yet, translators are still part of the precariat and their contribution to the vitality of their culture is undervalued.

One important and tangible result of the 2020 conference Translating the Future commemorating the gathering of 1970 (see RundUmschau #01) was the recent issue of a new manifesto by PEN America’s Translation Committee. Drafted by two dozen translators, this document not only takes stock of what has and hasn’t changed in the past fifty years, but also analyzes gender and racial disparities in literary translation in the United States in terms of who gets to translate and what gets translated, calls on the academy to take up greater responsibility in training translators and scholars in the field, and addresses the rise of digital technology in publishing.

Readers, too, have a role to play in sustaining this form of creative art. They are called on to actively seek out works in translation and request libraries and bookstores carry works in translating and call on cultural organization to include translators in literary events and festivals.

The 2023 Translation Manifesto is much more expansive than its predecessor and presents a vision of change not only in the practical conditions in which translators work but also in global political attitudes: ‘Every act of translation intervenes in the current geopolitical economy. … Translators must continue to develop strategies that challenge the pervasive tendency to assimilate and domesticate texts into universalizing accounts of human experience. We should play an active role in destabilizing homogenizing cultural, linguistic, and canonical norms through the versions of texts we create.”

On Saturday, 13 May, the PEN World Voices Festival hosted a launch for the manifesto, archived here, that used the document as a point of departure to ask how translation can be understood as an inherently political act and how we can teach, review, and study translation in a way that does justice to its cultural contexts.

Change begins with recognition. Until there is a greater acknowledgement of translation as a form of writing and of literary translation as a creative art form every bit as essential to the enrichment, preservation, and dissemination of national and international cultures, translation will continue to be undervalued or dismissed as marginal or derivative. Some of the issues addressed in the manifesto are specific to the United States, but most are urgently relevant to countries around the world.


©Sarah Shatz

Tess Lewis is a translator from French and German. Her translations include works by Peter Handke, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Jonas Lüscher, Lutz Seiler, Walter Benjamin, and Montaigne. Her translation of Maja Haderlap’s Angel of Oblivion won the ACFNY Translation Prize and the 2017 PEN Translation Award. A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize fellow and an American Library in Paris Scholar of Note, she is an Advisory Editor for The Hudson Review and co-curator of the Festival Neue Literature, New York City’s annual festival of German language literature in  

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