03/01/2012 03:21 pm ET Updated May 01, 2012

Lost & Found in Translation

The enterprise of translation has always interested me. As a young reader, of course, I read the canonized foreign "classics" of my time: the Russians, the French, the Spanish, the Central and South Americans. I read more Europeans than anything. I read no Asian literature. I read no African literature. Well, very, very little.

As I grew into a young writer, I was exposed to more literature in other languages -- largely, it seemed, because my teachers found in foreign literature new literary forms to share. It seemed to all of us young writers that our contemporaries in other countries were somehow freer to experiment with plot and character, with lyric language than Americans.

Just this week, the 2012 fiction long list (25 titles) of the Best Translated Book Awards was announced. It includes books from 14 countries and 12 languages. The awards program is organized by "Three Percent," a part of the University of Rochester translation program and Open Letter Press, also associated with the university. The finalists in fiction will be announced on April 10 in conjunction with the poetry finalists. The winners in both categories will be celebrated at the PEN World Voices Festival in New York City.

As an older writer, now, I read more work in translation than I used to. And I've become ever more interested in the writer of translations as well as the original author. Not long ago I found a beautiful little book on the subject browsing the bookstore at Brown University. The book is Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman from Yale University Press. Grossman I know as a translator of Marquez and more recently from her beautiful work with Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote.

Grossman's argument in her short book is told in three parts, some of which is adapted from a series of lectures she gave at Yale. The final chapter pertaining to poetry was written especially for the book. Perhaps because Why Translation Matters began as a lecture, it is marvelously accessible, nearly coffee-shop conversational. And thus, her arguments and understandings are revealed in simpler language. One of the most profound revelations I found in Grossman's book was her statement that all translators think of themselves first as writers, and not as "the humble, anonymous handmaids-and-men of literature." Indeed, this is exactly how I had thought about translators most of my life, as humble handmaids. No longer.

Beyond the translator as writer, what interested me in Why Translation Matters was Grossman's interpretation of the translator as reader. She writes, "translators need to develop a keen sense of style in both languages, honing and expanding our critical awareness of the emotional impact of words, the social aura that surrounds them, the setting and mood that informs them, the atmosphere they create."

Further on in Why Translation Matters, Grossman takes on the question of "Where is the cultural profit, the public good?" Here, her argument for translating the "classics" seems ever-ready, but the argument for translating contemporary work less so. There is the classic talk about literature fighting against the principles of the "oppressive regime," which is, if not completely true, true enough.

Perhaps the most interesting assertion made by Grossman to me is this, "By now it is commonplace, at least in translating circles, to assert that the translator is the most penetrating reader and critic a work can have." I have to say this was news to me, startling, and delicious. It is the single question I found in this book that I can't let go of.

Having just published a biography of Nathanael West, I've spent the last few years contemplating the "biographer as perceptive reader." I've felt, really, a new sense that the literary biographer has at least the potential to be "the most penetrating reader." Now, again, I must reconsider.

Anyway, this is all to say, let us read! Find and read Why Translation Matters and read from the list of the Best Translated Book Awards. Let us enjoy the surprises, the challenges of literature in all languages, in translation and otherwise. Let us contemplate the writer, too, writing in all her forms. Let us see how we are.

Joe Woodward has just published Alive Inside the Wreck: A Biography of Nathanael West.