Notes on what's gained in translation

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The Independent Culture
When the Portuguese novelist Jose Saramago won the Nobel Prize for literature on Thursday, the commonest reaction in this country was: Jose who? Which is not altogether surprising; although a substantial number of his novels are in the bookshops and he has been the subject of repeated critical admiration in review pages, he is not one of those authors whose name trips off many British tongues. He is not, poor soul, a "personality". More to the point, it is almost axiomatic in publishing - despite the recent dizzy sales adventures of Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow and Sophie's World - that translations do not sell.

This has been an odd feature of the British literary landscape for a long time. We live in a country whose two desert island books - the Bible and Shakespeare - are both inconceivable without the efforts of translators. The Bible is a translation pure and simple, and where would Shakespeare's Roman plays have been without Plutarch, or his sonnets without Petrarch? Next year's date with the millennium will provoke a fair number of "Best books of all time" lists, and it is a good bet that the names Tolstoy, Proust, Kafka, Chekhov, Flaubert, Goethe, Homer and so on will feature prominently. Yet modern publishing and bookselling recoils at the idea of translation. So the annual ritual in which we question the credentials of those idiotic Scandinavian so-called judges seems set to be a fixed point in our calendar.

The decline in the status of translation is a shame, and not only because it deprives us of any forewarning when major international authors are deservedly recognised. Translation is an important fact of life. Borges pointed to its slippery significance when he suggested of one of his stories that "the original was unfaithful to the translation", and there are many areas of daily life where even within a language some translation is required: across the gulf between the races, classes, sexes or generations. When the Channel Tunnel was opened, the police on both sides of the water collaborated on an Anglo-French phrase book that was intended to help smooth the flow of criminal traffic. It looked at first comical - everyone knew that French cops liked to stop speeding cars and say: "OK Damon, ou est le feu". But it was at least a wholehearted attempt to bridge a gap that needed bridging.

Today, one prime failure of translation lies in the realm of finance and economics. The arcane and barely readable technical details of today's capital market movements prevent most passers-by from gaining so much as a glimpse of what's going on. Leaf through your average stockbroker's report, and it will say that the increase in household penetration of stand-alone units, along with revised-down forecasts of capital expenditure on premium products, will impact negatively on gross margins while still offering attractive forward yields in the area of multi-tier cross-market synergies. It is no wonder none of us understand what is going on out there, as currencies tremble and stock prices judder.

It would be pushing it to say that the Independent long ago anticipated this week's ennobelling when it gave Saramago its own pounds 10,000 Award for Foreign Fiction in 1993, but it is a sign at least that Saramago is far from an unknown. In his 50-year publishing career he has won enthusiastic praise from all quarters. If you flick through reviews of his novels, the word "profound" crops up regularly. He has good ideas: in one of his novels, a pseudonym paces Lisbon brooding on what will become of him now that his namesake has died; in another, the Iberian peninsular breaks from Europe and drifts towards America (almost crashing into the Azores), a clear allegory on the Americanisation of the North Atlantic.

On the front page of this section Jose Saramago reflects on fame, and he is sufficiently notorious himself to have left Portugal some years ago to live in the Canary Islands, where he could enjoy the kind of peace and quiet he needed to keep working. When his novel The Gospel According to Jesus Christ was published in Lisbon, and proposed for a European literary award, it was withdrawn by Portugal's politicians on the grounds that it was an offence. His narrator cheekily blamed Dad - or God - for the ills of the world, and this is the kind of provocation that earns other authors death threats. So when we think of him as "little-known" we have to remind ourselves that he is little-known only to us, and that this might be our fault, not his.

It is worth remembering too that though the Nobel prize will enrich Saramago handsomely, he still won't be the richest man in Lanzarote. There will be much smarter villas and faster cars owned by younger men who've spent a few years making frantic phone calls in bull market dealing rooms (and got out just in time). Translate that one if you can.