Literary Translation in the Digital Age

Literary Translation in the Digital Age

Thoreau famously proclaimed, “Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” He went on to write, “Those who have not learned to read the ancient classics in the language in which they were written must have a very imperfect knowledge of the history of the human race.” This brings to surface the important question of translation. Thoreau thinks that the only “right” way to read literature that’s not printed in one’s native tongue is to learn to read it in its original language. This seems a bit unreasonable today, when very few people learn Greek and Latin and instead read the Classics in English.

Unfortunately, though many English books are translated into other languages, very few books in other languages are translated into English. The University of Rochester runs a website called Three Percent—named after the tiny percentage of books published in the U.S. that are translated works—that keeps a database of all the fiction and poetry in the U.S. that is translated from another language into English. The website’s “about” page states, “The motivating force behind the website is the view that reading literature from other countries is vital to maintaining a vibrant book culture and to increasing the exchange of ideas among cultures… To remain among the world’s best educated readers, English speakers must have access to the world’s great literatures. It is a historical truism and will always remain the case that some of the best books ever written were written in a language other than English.” My guess is that Thoreau would agree with that.

In that same vein, though Thoreau would have no idea, computer coding can also be seen as a form of translation. An academic paper entitled “Digital Code and Literary Text” by Florian Cramer explores the idea of innate textuality of the language of digital systems, and therefore the interconnectedness of all languages, including those of computers. The paper reads, “Zeros and ones are an alphabet which can be translated forth and back between other alphabets without information loss. It does, in my point of view, make no sense to limit the definition of the alphabet in general to that of the Roman alphabet in particular when we can the same textual information in this very alphabet, as Morse code, flag signs or transliterated into zeros and ones.”

Cramer writes that though it may be tempting to categorize language into either machine readable or human readable, it’s important to keep in mind that machine language is still relevant to human art and literature. Furthermore, computer code isn’t computer created. Rather, humans write all language. Cramer draws a comparison between computer code and musical notation, which is also a “written formal instruction code” yet is a creative human art form.

He writes, “Literature and computers meet first of all where alphabets and code, human language and machine language intersect.”

Another Post About Ebooks

In English 340 we, collectively, have talked and written quite extensively on the topic of ebooks and digital literature in general. I would like to continue that conversation, but extend it to something we haven’t really discussed— what online literature means for the future of book publishing.

 I am a big fan of noted YA author and videoblogger John Green. More than five years ago, Green wrote an “Internet-based, multimedia book” entitled This is Not Tom, and then wrote an article in the School Library Journal reflecting on this experience. (This article was written in 2010 and its main audience is school librarians, but it’s definitely worth a read.)

The conversation surrounding ebooks/ereaders right now tends to take the shape of an argument as to whether physical paper books or online books are better or more comfortable to read or more conducive to learning, etc. Green argues, and I am inclined to agree, that we are asking the wrong questions. The physical medium of literature is of relatively little importance. Of more immediate concern is what digital literature means for the distribution and publication of future books.

Here is basically how book publishing works right now: Publishers receive millions of manuscripts a year, they agree to publish a tiny fraction of said manuscripts, the authors then spend a lot of time revising the manuscripts with professional editors so that the books are as good as they can be, and they are published and sent to bookstores.

Here is how book publishing could work in the future: Bookstores, which are already in decline, won’t exist. Big-box stores like Wal-Mart will sell only a limited selection of the best selling books. The rest of authors hoping to see their books in print will self-publish and try to sell their books online. These books won’t go through publishers so will be unedited and unmediated. Green compares this world of publishing to YouTube: “Millions of books get a few readers, and a few books get a million readers.”


The biggest problem with the latter model is that with only a few books going through publishers, the quality of books will be lesser and the market will be so crowded that it will be near impossible for readers to find what they want to read. Even the books that are sold in Wal-Mart will appeal to the lowest common denominator for lack of a better term, and some may actually start out as self-published (and unedited) ebooks that are then picked up by a major publisher, a la Fifty Shades of Grey. (Think of all the awful books that will be published and turned into awful movies.)

This all sounds very alarming, but it is a debatable topic. Maybe it would be a good thing if traditional publishing were to die out. It might give languishing authors a better chance to find readers. Maybe with our ever-increasing technology, we’ll find a way to make sure books published online are polished to be the best reading experience they can be, and that the best ebooks rise to fame while the worst fall to obscurity.

I don’t know how the future of book publishing will turn out. The digital age might have a lot of exciting innovation in store. It will change the way we read, but exactly how remains to be seen. Maybe every novel we read in the future will be a multi-media experience. But first and foremost, I believe, we need to make sure that future generations will have good books to read, and that future good books will find broad readerships. Green writes, “We must preserve that magical moment when the space between you and me evaporates, and we are all of us making a story real together. Bells and whistles are all fine and good, but the writer must not leave the story behind, and the reader must not be allowed to abandon her responsibility as cocreator: she, and she alone, can make a story real.”


Here is another article that quickly sums up some of the issues I discussed: