Of the million translated books listed by Unesco since its inception, fully one tenth are translated into English, and a staggering two thirds from English. This means (at least) two things: books written in English are at an enormous advantage against books written in any other language; and “whatever language you write in, the translation that counts is the English one”. English is the floor, the language of international competition, the language of visibility. Sans English, you do not pass go. Sans English, there is no go.
It also means that in the field of translations, English is in play fully three-quarters of the time. Who knew? Really, it ought to mean that we have a keen sense of our good fortune; that (as befits a trading nation and an island state) we are comfortable with the idea of translation, knowing as we do that our books have an absurdly easy time of it abroad, and that we are kept tolerably well supplied from other languages; that we devote a respectable amount of thought to the commerce of books and ideas through a jostle of languages. That, to adapt one of Bellos’s eccentric and wonderful heroes, a Francophone writer with the nom de plume of Antoine Volodine, we revere English not as the language of Byron and Shakespeare and JK Rowling, but as the ultimate repository of, say, Eco and Remarque and Kawabata. Instead of which, translation is a dirty secret, and the level of thinking about it ought to be an embarrassment. (That’s not Bellos, by the way, it’s me.)
Because Bellos seems to have that rare and wonderful thing, a sunny, Scotch (or Scotch-educated) temperament. There may be no particular reason for things to be the way they are – “the solar structure of the global book world wasn’t designed by anyone”; he points it out, and moves on. He doesn’t accuse, doesn’t lament, doesn’t gripe. The terrain is fraught with misconceptions, many of them ancient and indurated. He clears away a few: “The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax” (that’s the “hundred words for snow” idea to you); the canard of fidelity; the “no substitute for the original” prejudice against translation (mostly – though you don’t find him saying so – from people who have never learned a language or crossed a street to read an author); the idea of languages as settled, finite things whose natural habitat is dictionaries (as if wild animals came from zoos); the idea of language as separate from speech (this too he has a label for: “scriptism”); the idea that Robert Frost ever said anything like “poetry is what gets lost in translation” (it was news to me too that he hadn’t).