‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité!’ A call for revolution
by Anna Holmwood, translator and editor-in-chief of Books from Taiwan Issue 1-3
Jun 29, 2015

Perhaps the last thing we need is a motto for translation, let alone a rally cry to revolution. Why? Because translation is happening all the time, and has happened all through human history. It is a perfectly ordinary, mundane reality for most humans, who contrary to the view from inside the English-speaking world, are multilingual in some form. But translation is necessarily embraced by ideological warriors and locked into power imbalances between peoples, so that it cannot claim an independent existence outside the political realities of every age. In times past translation sullied the word of God, or Muhammad, or the Buddha, or perhaps disseminated a European ‘enlightenment’ to all corners of its occupied territories around the world. Now we may celebrate our globalised identities, but still we lament ‘minority languages,’ even those, let’s just say for the sake of argument, spoken by over a billion people.


Like Mandarin Chinese, surely the world’s most widely spoken ‘minority language.’

‘It’s the market!’

‘There’s no money in it!’

But a translator’s gotta eat.


Translation, like every other creative practice, is engaged in that very modern love affair with the market. The market. A Siren, a goddess sent from the depths to tempt us with prospective riches, the ironic Saviour to save us from its very grip.

‘If only this translation, for which I may receive a 1% royalty, will go a 50 Shades of Crazy and never again will I have to make a choice, never will I have to sell my soul.’

I have my fingers crossed. I kneel, I pray. I burn a joss stick, hoping for my moment. Please let the market deliver me from the prison. Give me freedom to translate without recourse to the ‘realities’ as defined by my chosen god.


But what if I am not one of the ‘blessed’, the ‘chosen ones,’ to work from a language with ‘market appeal’? Because not all languages are born equal. Not all peoples and their stories are ‘universal.’ The exotic is only a dance suitable for the few, the lithe and sexy of the world’s cultures.

Scandinavian murders, Latin American love affairs, Russian depressive musings of the soul. A somewhat indistinct ‘Eastern European’ surrealist happening. Perhaps, a Chinese story of famine and foot binding. Yes please. These can be packaged with glossy covers.

‘A Spanish disaster novel? Hmm. I’m not sure about that.’



Translators huddle. We form a gaggle. We are a flock, seeking solace against our Saviour, the market and its vengeful ways.

With such goodness of intention, such pureness of soul, why does our Saviour let us be treated so harshly?

The professionalisation of literary translation in recent years is much talked-of, and indeed it has brought many benefits to individuals engaged in what is otherwise a somewhat lonely practice. As competition law prevents our ‘unionisation’ (the market rules demand it), conversations are sometimes hushed, but in reality, translators depend upon this brotherhood, this entry into the world of ‘professionalised work’ to survive. Without it, we are loners, jokers, chancers. We need the stamp of ‘work’ to give credit to our efforts and monetary value to what we do.

But is there a space for translation to happen outside the market? Considering it is the overriding context in which literary translation happens, surely it would be pointless to lead a cry against it?

And yet, if left to the market alone, translation is pushed and squeezed and forced into marketable boxes, and translators will forever struggle to survive. Just like all other artists, we need a pantheon of gods from which to draw our sustenance, to hedge our bets with temples full of alternatives. We need the range of possibilities, the richness of ideas diverse and multilingual. Some translation needs to happen precisely because the market cannot sustain it. Some texts need to exist so that they might take us outside the marketable, the branded, the chain store big business or outlet logic of our current globalized world. Take me to the local tea shop, I don’t want a Frappuccino.

Translation needs to be supported through other means, just as art hasn’t always been a commodity to be bought and sold in auction houses, but also a craft sustained through patronage. We can look to our past, we can look horizontally at concurrent alternatives. But what we cannot do is let this most essential of human activities be given over to one deity to define and control.

Because there’s nothing more depressing than hearing ‘There’s no money in it!’ when a translator’s gotta eat.