Against Translation

‘The evidence is everywhere that native speakers of English no longer understand their own language, and no longer bother to try. They no longer require of it anything more than practical communication; as in the rest of their lives, they demand of their language mainly efficiency and informality and velocity. And if this is the case with our own language, how much could we understand of anyone else’s? And how, absent years of dedicated scholarship, could books from other contexts be read or understood? Much advocacy of translation relied on the idea that it was enough to bring a foreign text into our language, and serious readers would do the hard work of diving deeply. But one risk of emphasizing works in translation was never spoken: that a smattering of Polish or Yoruba or Chinese books would be playing into the same vogue for novelty, for passing sensations and transient enthusiasms — for multicultural sanctimony — that was undermining every other area of our cultural and social life.

There is nothing wrong with reading a book from a culture that one does not know well, but I do not understand the insistence that in itself this is a positive good. It depends on the book; it depends on the reader. And it strikes me that, after years of following these debates, I rarely heard a justification beyond “diversity”: an unanswerable concept that dispensed with other justifications — artistic, scientific, scholarly, spiritual — for translation. It was harmless to enjoy Swedish crime novels or Elena Ferrante, but such enjoyment no more implied a familiarity with Scandinavian or Italian literature than enjoying Mexican food denotes a familiarity with Mexican culture.

Translation without context can be a form of consumerism, of tokenism, of — dare I say it? — “cultural appropriation.” The real problem with “cultural appropriation” is that it does not appropriate deeply enough. Clarice Lispector called Brazilians “fake cosmopolitans,” and the term seems uncomfortably appropriate to us: people forever dipping in and out of cultures they hardly understand. By expanding into too many other worlds, we have sacrificed depth in our own, and cut ourselves off from what was particular, and profound, about us’.

– Benjamin Moser, ‘Against Translation’, Liberties 2, no. 1 (2021).