Translation & Publishing in the Global South


Library of Muyinga in Burundi, by BC Architects

This is a summary, with a bit of commentary, of an event that took place at Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute on January 25, 2018.

Translation—especially the challenge of translating poetry—has always fascinated me because, as a balance of compromises, it is nearly impossible to do satisfactorily, while at the same time it is absolutely necessary for respectful human communication and meaningful cultural exchange:  respectful because not everyone in the world should be expected to master English, and meaningful because human expression comes in so many flavors that are revelatory if we truly try to understand word for word, phrase for phrase, and culture to culture.

A translator tries to offer not only literal meaning but also some flavor of the sound and rhythm, the multiple layers of meaning, and the aesthetics of the tradition within which, or against which, the original author is working. As we took a serious look at translation and publishing in an all-day event entitled Translation & Publishing in the Global South at Duke’s Franklin Humanities Institute, we were thinking a lot about that tension between impossibility and necessity, idealism and practicality. In the spirit of the Publishing Humanities Initiative, I hope that everyone came away with some practical knowledge and inspiration to move forward with their own projects.

An encyclopedic treatment of translation and publishing in the Global South would ideally include many voices from the South as well as information on South-to-South publishing, publishing companies in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, and translation across many different languages other than English. Despite our ambitious event title, we were not able to accomplish quite that much (if only!); nevertheless, we heard informative talks that caused a small but highly engaged cohort to stay all day. Indeed, some of the speakers seemed to learn as much from each other’s presentations as the faculty and graduate students in the audience did.

Following is my attempt to summarize the salient points from each talk.

Juan Obarrio, Johns Hopkins University, “Interlingual Exchange in the Global South: Translating and Publishing Critical Theory.”

In addition to his own distinguished scholarly writing on critical theory and political anthropology, Juan is editor of Critical Times, a new, forthcoming journal from the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs. He is also co-editor, with Nancy Rose Hunt and Achille Mbembe, of Theory in Forms, a new book series from Duke University Press. Originally from Argentina, he has spearheaded efforts to encourage and enable South-to-South translation; notably, he ran a program on critical theory at the University of San Martín for five years. He spoke of how “very difficult” it is to produce joint research projects across the global South; he brings experience of the victories and failures from those ventures to his new publishing projects.

In this talk, he pointed out the limitations of the postcolonial view from the North of the South, where colonial violence, economic imperialism, and the “dynamics of extractive captial” are powerfully present, and he emphasized the importance of sharing humanistic production not only from the North to all countries and cultures that are wrestling with a colonial past, but also disseminating work that originates in (/is “immanent from”) the South. Ideally, the trajectory of such dissemination moves not only North, to the United States and Europe, but also South-to-South, for example from Latin America to Africa and vice versa. The very idea of “theory from the South” is radical, challenging persistent international assumptions about hierarchies and linear flows (North to South) of ideas and information. It “reorients the debate on universals and particulars, center and periphery.”

Theorizing this interlingual exchange in and from the South is important, while enacting it on a practical plane is an enormous challenge that the new journal and book series attempt to take up in different ways. The book series will include both established authors and “young, brilliant scholars from Africa, South Asia, and Latin America”; the editors are receiving many submissions. Financed initially by a three-year grant from the Mellon Foundation, the journal, Critical Times, will present themed issues on “the most important political and intellectual debates that are not part of our conversation here” and include “also arts and performances and the theorization around that.” Over time the plan is for issues to originate in the South as well as include “dossiers” of materials on topics like global women’s movements and Black Lives Matter.

One of many interesting challenges that Juan mentioned is the fact that “theory from the South is produced not only by academics but also by public intellectuals and social movements.” In addition, regions of the South are compartmentalized; global collaborations are needed to share and publish scholarship, perhaps in the form of “triangulations” that might include one Northern institution and two Southern. Not only would Southern work be translated into English, but also translations would move across South Asia, the Middle East, and so on, with translators for multiple languages provided at meetings and events.

In reviewing my notes from this powerful plea, or demand, for the South to be heard, it strikes me that Juan is placing great trust and a heavy and important burden on publishing. Nevertheless, his confidence in the potential of publishing is not misplaced, and these unique new projects could someday be regarded as catalysts for a new wave of global scholarly exchange in the humanities.

David Hansen, Director of Copyright and Scholarly Communication, Duke University Libraries, spoke next on “International Copyright Law and Translation.” David is both a librarian and a copyright lawyer. Note that many research universities have a Scholarly Communications librarian on staff, who is usually a copyright lawyer. Many faculty members do not know that they have the luxury of consulting such an expert on their own projects, free of charge. Typically, at a publishing company, there is no full-time, on-staff copyright lawyer; permission to consult the expensive lawyer is given sparingly. At Duke, David has also trained a fleet of librarians dubbed Copyright Consultants.

David offered a practical review of international copyright law, which is not consistent across all countries and continents. He recommended that scholars handle rights in three steps: (1) determine whether the work is protected by copyright or in the public domain; (2) research whether one can use the work according to any applicable contractual, fair use, privacy, or ethical considerations; and (3) communicate to one’s audience what one knows about the rights.

Starting with item number 1, to translate a work, the translator must first determine its rights status, which is governed by the country where the work was first published. This is important because there are cases in which a work is in the public domain in the US but not elsewhere. He offered several useful websites, including the Cornell University Library Information Center, which offers the best current chart that he knows for helping to determine whether or not a work is protected by copyright or in the public domain.

David showed Section 102 of the Copyright Act on the screen. Several aspects of it are admittedly “very U.S. and U.K. centric,” but it is fundamental to copyright protection in most of the world. It is important to note that since 1989, a creator does not have to include a copyright notice on a work for it to be copyrighted. As long as you have put your ideas into a “fixed form,” the work you have thereby created is automatically copyrighted.

He reviewed the “fair use” doctrine that allows the reasonable reuse of quotations and excerpts as determined by the balancing of four factors including the proportion of the original being quoted and the potential to damage the market for the original work (see the US Copyright Office online).

Many works today carry a Creative Commons license, a legally binding statement whereby a creator can allow free sharing and reuse of their work without additional permission or contracts. There are several flavors of these licenses which always require attribution and are intended to ease the free flow of information. Some CC licenses include a “no derivatives” statement; note that a translation is considered a derivative work.

David pointed out that the “communication piece” is as important as researching copyright status: note how the Duke Library communicates about sources and what can be done with the material (for example, see the “Rights Note” attached to any of the Radio Haiti recordings). He advised that translators communicate what they know about the rights in a rights note. Without such explicit communication, future potential uses of the work can be inadvertently stifled.

Deciding on what uses are allowed is sometimes a matter of balancing risks (“Where am I likely to get sued?”). It is important to note that law is not the only factor to apply to such decisions; “Good actors try to respect the wishes of the creators,” David said. A translator should acknowledge the original, whether or not that is legally required. An interesting development is the Traditional Knowledge Licensing and Labeling Website, which is a project to create a kind of Creative Commons for traditional knowledge of local and indigenous communities.

Sandie Blaise, PhD Candidate at Duke, spoke first in the afternoon to share her research on publishing in Haiti (“Overcoming Francophonie: A Haitian Case Study”). Having gathered statistics on the publishing industry in Haiti as well as interviewed some twenty publishers there, she underscored the truth of the general picture that Juan Obarrio had painted of publishing in the Global South. Most publishing in Haiti is in French and the books come from France; they serve an elite audience of educated people who can afford to buy books. Meanwhile, most Haitians speak Creole in their daily lives; literacy rates reached a height of 53% in 2003, but only recently have some intrepid local publishing companies begun publishing books in Creole, with an emphasis on poetry and “youth” or Young Adult literature. New publishing companies since 2011 are C3 Editions, Legs Editions, and Association Lève. Run by young professionals, they offer their books on Amazon and publicize on FaceBook, Instagram, and Twitter. Although they offer discounted e-versions, paperbacks are more popular. The sales record for a book in Creole is held by a paper version of a poetry collection.

Sandie passed around copies of some of these new books and discussed the economic challenge of keeping prices low while negotiating small print runs and acceptable production quality from printing/binding vendors. Taking these significant practical steps, “local actors have resisted the cultural, linguistic and economic domination of French and France by carving out a space of autonomy for the Haitian book market and promoting Creole as a written language.”

Publishers’ Panel

This panel was intended to highlight what scholarly publishers do to enable exchange of scholarly ideas across national borders.

 Victoria Wells, former director of contracts and Subsidiary Rights, University of North Carolina Press, spoke of book fairs around the world; most have some rights-selling going on at them, but certain fairs are especially focused on rights: Frankfurt, Beijing, Guadalajara. Vicky attended the Frankfurt Book Fair every year for nearly two decades to make and keep contacts with foreign publishers; over three and a half days, she would meet with some fifty people at the UNC Press booth.

From each Fall and Spring list of forthcoming UNC Press books, she would select those that had the best chance of selling in certain non-US markets and create a “rights guide” to promote these books to other publishers, based on her experience with foreign publishers and distributors and the performance of previous translations.

She pointed out how important it is to choose a foreign publisher or distributor who will actually promote the book in their markets; it can be frustrating to see a book be translated but sit on the shelf because there is no marketing push for it.

In working out a fair contract, many details were arranged including permission for illustrations, how the quality of the translation would be evaluated, and payment schedules. She named several examples of books that were translated widely; Hiroshima Diary might be UNC Press’s record, with twenty different translations.

“Most authors sign over all rights to the university press,” Vicky explained, “Because we are best positioned to exploit those rights.” This is an important point, because some writers’ advocates and organizations will recommend that authors retain subsidiary rights; if you want time to work on your next book, it’s reasonable to let your publisher serve as your agent in these matters.

 Elizabeth Ault, Editor, Duke University Press, is Juan Obarrio’s editor for the new Theory in Forms series mentioned above. She pointed out several ventures in translation at the Press, including a new bilingual en face edition of Cesaire’s Cahiers and a longstanding Latin American in Translation Series, a joint effort with the University of North Carolina Press and Duke’s Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS); interestingly, in choosing one translation per year for the Latin American series from twenty to forty submissions, the publishers assume that most of the potential audience has already read the work in Spanish or Portuguese, so the publishing decision is focused on the potential for the work to “break into the conversation” in English, be taught in courses, or otherwise appeal to a wider audience.

In the World Readers series, each volume includes around fifty pieces chosen by the academic editor, who arranges for the translations while an editorial intern at the Press negotiates permissions. “The Readers,” Elizabeth explained, “are a huge undertaking but extremely successful.”

An investment in a translation is usually a double investment, she noted; first the Press buys the translation rights; then, the translation itself must be paid for. For the translator, there is not much money to be made; it is often a labor of love. Nor is there much scholarly credit gained, although the work is important in a larger sense.

Finally, Molly Hansen, a Marketing Associate for Latin America at Oxford University Press’s office in Cary, North Carolina, told us about marketing Oxford books and journals to Brazilian libraries. She travels to trade fairs and communicates with librarians almost exclusively in Portuguese about books in English that their patrons—Brazilian scholars and students who are proficient in English—will use for their research. Face to face meetings are crucial, she finds, though she also communicates a lot via email and prepares marketing materials that organize new publications by discipline.  Outside of the book fairs, the efforts of her marketing group focus mostly on online resources; the countries they hear from the most are Mexico, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, Peru, and Paraguay.

Molly’s role at OUP, part of a larger international marketing and sales operation, gave us a window into the complexity of an international publishing business (OUP is, in fact, one of the largest publishers in the world). The audience also appreciated hearing that she had earned an M.A. in Latin American Studies (Tulane University) and had found this interesting and worthwhile way to make use of her education.