The history of modern literature is often confused
in Europe and the Americas with the
history of literary journals.
It might not be obvious to many but academic journals, through their continuous serial publication, knit a fine, yet extensive web of language that flows like a nervous system through society, connecting readers to multiple states of intellectual awareness and vibrant potentiality. The work of journal editing in language and literature studies interlaces a collective dialogue that takes place across all the issues of a journal, between other journals, and just as importantly, within and among different nations. A multilingual journal constructs a palpable cultural viaduct, allowing intellectual and literary production to flow into new spaces in other cultures, creating alertness on both ends, for translations transcend the barriers of language. In this increasingly global way of life, multilingual journals are the catalysts of cultural fusion and assimilation, the place were translation becomes the lattice supporting the growth of the concept of otherness. However, I often wonder to what extent this observation is applicable to journals published in the United States, for editing across language and culture divides is such a scarce activity in this country. I wish to trace some of the forces that impede editing across the divide between English and other languages—particularly Spanish.
Be it print or virtual, literary expression, in becoming art, signals the robustness of a society. A journal of letters manifests culture. In a periodical dedicated to the humanities, art uses language as its means of expression. Nevertheless, language itself can get in the way of art. As an editor of a bilingual journal, Literal: Latin American Voices, I encounter this challenge on a daily basis, something that is of minor concern to other advocates of art such as museum curators or music directors. And that is because Literal works as a threshold where foreign forms of expression cross. Literal aspires to promote a vibrant, contemporary view on Latin and American cultural engagement and exchange. The journal provides an international medium for the diffusion of current events, literature and art in Mexico, the US, and Canada; some of the articles are presented in English and Spanish side by side, while others are presented in Spanish or English alone. Literal understands that the broad cultural universe cannot be limited by any single language.
This multi awarded publication, is a driven mission journal that seeks to build a dense bridge able to hold a two way cultural dialogue between North and South America—being that the reason we publish it in Spanish and English. It brings out essays, interviews, art, photography, art critic, works of fiction, reviews and poetry.
Juggling languages in our pages has made us understand that language can sometimes be the agent of fate; a language determines and is determined by the structures that constrain and support it. An Anglo-American will never articulate in the same way an Argentinean will, because each language has a structure that impinges on expression, or as Doris Sommer has said, “Each language constitutes a distinct ‘psyche of a people’” (Bilingual Aesthetics 10). While visual or acoustic artistic expressions may readily target an international public, transcending barriers of language difference, if not always cultural difference, this will never occur in print without the help of translation. Disciplines like the visual or acoustic arts are not so heavily burdened with such need for intervention. In his Syntactic Structures, Noam Chomsky considers the variation of natural languages to be quite superficial (85–92). Following Chomsky’s train of thought, what is published in a bilingual journal will need to overcome the superficial structures of language. There is no question about the feasibility of such a venture, but rather about who will have the capacity to translate, who will invest in the necessary tools to enrich the vast cultural landscape that exists beyond the Anglo-speaking American world.
Things are liable to become more complicated, however, for the text is not all that needs to be translated. One is faced with the responsibility of trying to translate culture. The nongeographical place where language and culture meet in journal discourse must be inhabited by an attentive editor. Written expressions need to pass through this space on the way from one language to another to make an idea, an image, or a metaphor understandable. Insofar as this can be done, editors, along with artists, become architects of linguistic and cultural change. Now, an expression in one language cannot be completely transmitted into another language. The question, and challenge, is about how much of a culture can be transmitted into another language, and how much an editor should intervene in trying to make that happen.
This is exactly where the difficulties of working with authors whose first language is not English begin. I will not go into the technicalities of translating, but some readers agree with Norman Shapiro when he says that any translated text should be “so transparent that it does not seem to be translated. A good translation is like a pane of glass. You only notice that it’s there when there are little imperfections—scratches, bubbles. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any. It should never call attention to itself” (qtd. in Venuti, Translator’s Invisibility 1). Shapiro’s belief in the lucid translation is attractive, and may be true on the level of reading a translation, but few would agree that translation is a transparent process, that a translation functions simply as one culture’s clear window into another one. Opposing this theory is Doris Sommer, a scholar who positively celebrates the necessary imperfections of crossings from one language to another: “Words are not proper and don’t stay put. They wander into adjacent language fields, get lost in translation, pick up tics from foreign interference, and so can’t quite mean what they say” (Bilingual Aesthetics 12). At Literal, we struggle with these issues and end up agreeing with editors like Samantha Schnee, of Words Without Borders, who thinks that “the translation must be faithful to the source text but must also be rendered naturally into the new language” (Salum). Or with Isabel Fargo Cole, editor of No Man’s Land: “The important thing is that the translation should have as much ‘life’—tension and energy—as the original, and the translator really has to recreate this in his or her own terms” (Salum). What is truly important to a journal like Literal, which publishes in a bilingual format, is that from beginning to end language and translation can surpass outdated or stagnant forms of thought and offer new avenues for unveiling the human spirit.
To this end, an editor of a bilingual publication seeking to foster a dialogue between cultures becomes a mediator, a “translator” of culture. As Mary Louise Pratt suggests, anything related to languages might best be taken as an exercise in “cultural translation.” What is usually thought of as an “editorial intervention” turns into a “cultural invention.” The traditional editorial tendency, when selecting the contents of a journal, to search inside a native language rather than investigate outside of it, and to be conservative rather than inventive, needs to be closely scrutinized. It is a mistake—a common and tempting one—to repeat ad infinitum what has already been safely presented by the media, or even worse, to perpetuate a stereotype of a country’s culture. Neither can the editor be discouraged by the lack of knowledge, say, of what the vast world of literature written in Spanish has to offer. So the question arises, should a journal like Literal promote established writers familiar to readers and thereby minimize the risk of failure? I believe the editor should move out of the comfort zone of fame and predictability. Editing across languages is more compelling from a decentered position in relation to the dominant culture, when there is a “dance” between the core and the perimeter of a culture. Should we keep translating Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, or Roberto Bolaños so we can be identified as a journal that is in the know, or should we bet on extablished yet unfamiliar voices in the Spanish-speaking world along with new voices pushing from the underground to be heard? Should we translate only those writers likely to be well received within the Anglo-speaking world? Should we let the author’s work speak with minimal interference? Or should I as an editor intervene in the translation when I worry about the text’s ability to communicate in a different culture? If so, what can I do to make it feasible for readers to comprehend what this person has to say? Do I need to supply a specific context in a note so the author can be understood? Am I a co-creator by the mere fact that I facilitated the author’s accessibility to the new audience? Is it possible for a bilingual journal to separate the function of translation from the function of editing? These are questions that cannot be answered purely by reason; they require an almost corporeal, yet intuitive perception of culture. With this statement I mean that each case needs to be approached accordingly. However, I need to emphasize that an editor should balance the raison d’être of every case. Therefore, yes, we need to keep translating Bolaños, Fuentes, Vargas Llosa, but also the unknown, yet quality voices that are continuously arising by letting the author’s work speak with minimal interference. If a case turns out to be unique, Literal could supply a specific context in a note so the author could be understood—and always safeguarding its virtues in the face of edits and revisions. Nonetheless, an editor should never be intimidated by the response of the readers. There are innumerable cases in the history of literature and art, that creators were not understood by their fellow contemporaries Consequently the dance is always there; we try to hold the tension of the opposites, hoping for a synthesis that will provide the best passage to meaningful cross-cultural dialogue.
So editors invite to the common table voices that otherwise would remain silent. In search of new connections in the complicated web of international dialogue, the editor of a bilingual journal reads the signs of where human thought is headed and then brings harbingers of the new into dialogue with the established culture. We know we can’t ignore the globalized world where influences roam freely, even if the American public tends not to recognize the presence of other cultures within its own borders. As Samantha Schnee puts it in a recent interview, “As the world’s population increases and national economies morph into a global economy to a greater degree, events outside US borders will affect the US more deeply and more frequently” (Salum). But as this change is happening, there is a growing concern among certain critics that current scholarship in the field of cultural studies is inadequate for the task of addressing the significance of globalization on local regions and cultures. Moreover, “There is a tendency to abstract and aestheticize the colossal displacement of peoples and their cultures generated by globalization,” explains Lorraina Pinnell in her review of the book Global/Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary (205). A hybrid journal like Literal has a special role in addressing, in concrete terms and forms, cross-cultural contacts whirling through Canada, the US, and Latin America. For our part, we are dedicated to resisting this tendency to abstract an entire reality; the pages of Literal present distinct regions of the Americas in their various and sometimes clashing embodiments.
A sign of an effervescent nation is the welcoming of writers and artists from all over the world in dialogue, and journals are the primary hosts. In Europe, Geoffrey Faber, Helen Wolf, Joan Grijalbo, Jorge Herralde, Carlos Seix Barral, just to mention few visionary editors, are bringing authors from many nations and cultures to their readers. The US, by contrast, hosts just a few journals that routinely translate works from other cultures into English, such as Absinthe: New European Writing, Aufgabe, Calque, CipherJournal, Circumference, Hofstra Review, No Man’s Land, Onedit, Parthenon West Review, Pratilipi, The Raven Chronicle, Tameme, Words Without Borders, and Literal: Latin American Voices; and still fewer journals in the US are dedicated to publishing translated poetry, such as Two Lines or Modern Poetry in Translation. Of all these journals, only a few translate from or into Spanish. The translator and editor of Tameme C. M. Mayo remarks that “Mexican literature—a vast banquet—is one of the greatest achievements of the Americas. And yet we who read in English go hungry, for so astonishingly little of it has been translated. This is more astonishing still when one considers that the United States shares a two thousand-mile-long border with Mexico” (x). Esther Allen sharply says in a PEN American Center report that “English all too often simply ignores whatever is not English” (“English as an Invasive Species”). Despite the few lights mentioned above, the lack of venues for translation can be demoralizing.
Working across languages as a journal editor inevitably involves battling the establishment, standing in opposition to what might be considered “the best” by the general public—specifically corporate-sponsored authors on best-seller lists. Indeed, journals are the places where writers appear before they are judged by the general public as being “good.” While established writers with book contracts do continue to publish in journals, the “translation” journal has a critical mission to shelter struggling, often provocative voices from other countries, to draw a new geography onto the map of literature. Translations, however, are not as welcome in the US market as in many other cultures. “Ours is an export culture,” notes Esther Allen, observing that US artistic expressions are read and seen in the rest of the world while this country does not have a clear idea of what is being produced outside of its borders (“Confessions of a Silent Genre”). Lukas Klein, editor of CipherJournal, agrees: “Politically, culturally, historically, the US has been very insular and self-satisfied. . . . Of course this has changed, and the rush of immigration in the last several decades continues to change it further. But culturally, Americans’ interest in other cultures and other languages often gets under-encouraged” (Salum). I once was invited to a conference at a book fair in Mexico City and was asked why I publish Literal bilingually in a culture that is clearly monolingual. I answered, “Because Latin Americans also produce first-class literary and artistic material that needs to be known in the rest of the world.” But Lawrence Venuti’s view of the situation is disturbing: “It can be said that Anglo-American publishing has been instrumental in producing readers who are aggressively monolingual and culturally parochial while reaping the economic benefits of successfully imposing Anglo-American cultural values on a sizeable foreign readership” (Rethinking Translation 6). The dominance of corporate book-selling and the resulting cultural insulation of most of our public argues precisely for the critical role played by journals. Many voices cannot ever be heard in the marketplace except in a journal.
The obstacles, therefore, are enormous; the pressures are often asphyxiating. An editor across languages understands the daunting task of bringing new voices and other languages into the marketplace of American culture, especially confrontational voices. Yet these same editors embrace their responsibility, no matter how long it will take to see a transformation in the reading public. Jana Argersinger and Michael Cornett describe the situation of editors of bilingual journals perfectly when they say, “The professional life of the humanities journal editor, as it stands, is a curious blend of influence and invisibility” (from the introduction to this special section of Profession).
In a society so immersed in celebrity and popularity, it is vital that journal publishing pay attention to forms of non-English-speaking creative and intellectual expression, especially in Spanish. We need an environment in which we are able to connect with the human spirit, no matter its ethnicity, for living in a global world obliges us. As I said at the beginning, multilingual journals are the catalysts of cultural fusion and assimilation, the place were translation becomes the lattice supporting the growth of the concept of otherness. If America wants to flourish as a leader in the world of literature and the humanities, the publishers will have to become more open to works in translation, to compelling voices whose native tongue might be unintelligible to most Americans, but which can be heard and listened to in translation.