The Spanish Riveter: Not So Small: Catalan Literature in English Translation by Mara Faye Lethem

You may be surprised to learn that the fourth most common target language for Catalan literary translations – after Spanish, French and Italian – is now English. That surprise would most likely stem from some knowledge of the insularity of English-language publishing and/or some knowledge of the minoritisation of Catalan, which has led to its relative obscurity. There are interrelated reasons Catalan has become so much more popular as a source language for English translations – among them its wealth of literary history, some dedicated translators, and, of course, institutional backing.

A clear underlying circumstance is that the US and UK publishing markets have become more receptive to foreign authors. Anglophone publishing remains an export market; however, literature in English translation is undoubtedly having a moment. The number of books being translated has nearly doubled in the last few decades, and this has inevitably led to a slow but sure expansion in the range of source languages that are represented. So why has Catalan literature been so well poised to take advantage of this development within the English-language market?

One reason is that Catalan is not as small a language as it may seem. With more than nine million speakers, it is larger than some official national languages, such as Finnish or Danish, and it also has a long literary history. It’s well known that spoken languages are much more endangered than written ones, so it stands to reason that a language – albeit minoritised – with a history of texts dating back to the twelfth century is a good candidate for survival. Another sign of Catalan’s relative health as a literary language is the number of young authors currently writing in it, and the number of smaller presses publishing this work. Half of the Catalan prose translations published in the last year are works by writers born since 1970, many of them coming out of Catalonia’s lively independent publishing scene.

The Catalan language is an important part of the Catalan identity, and explicit language-preservation policies are in place in the region. The Institut Ramon Llull, now twenty years old, is a public organisation devoted to the promotion of Catalan culture throughout the world, with one arm devoted to literature and thought. English-language translations are, arguably, key for a language to thrive, and are undoubtably an important strategy to promote it. Using statistics Institut Ramon Llull compiles in its TRAC database, we can sketch the development of Catalan prose in English translation.

Prior to the mid-twentieth century, most of the Catalan works translated into English were by medieval writers, principally the Mallorcan Ramon Llull (1232–1316), a mind-blowingly productive figure, who wrote more than a two hundred works in Catalan, Arabic and Latin. Not only does Ramon Llull lend his name to the indispensable cultural organisation, but he is among the most-translated Catalan writers of all time. And it is by the hand of one of the most important Llullists, Anthony Bonner, that we find the first translation into English of a twentieth-century Catalan novel: By Nature Equal by Josep Maria Espinàs, published in 1961.

Six years later, an Irish woman named Eda O’Shiel would publish the first translation of Mercè Rodoreda’s classic La plaça del Diamant (for which she was paid forty-five pounds!). The next entry in the TRAC listing is from 1981, a new translation of the same novel with a very different title, The Time of theDoves. This marks the eruption onto the scene of the poet David H. Rosenthal, the first English-language translator to bring Catalan literature to real prominence in US and UK bookstores. Despite his premature death in 1992, some of his translations remain in print. Rosenthal’s The Time of the Doves also marks the first modern retranslation of a Catalan work, and presages Rodoreda’s prominence in the canon of translations from Catalan worldwide.

In terms of numbers of prose titles, Rosenthal’s work has now been eclipsed by translations by Peter Bush, Martha Tennent (often in co-translation with her daughter Maruxa Relaño) and even myself. However, the circumstances in which we have been able to work over the last two decades are drastically different from those Rosenthal faced, largely due to the invaluable efforts of the aforementioned Institut Ramon Llull. It not only helps to fund translations and their promotion, but it also trains translators, and works tirelessly to promote both classic and contemporary books to foreign publishers, as evidenced at the 2022 London Book Fair, which featured a Spotlight on Catalan literature. Its role in this translation boom cannot be underestimated; since it began, the number of Catalan prose titles being translated into English has increased ten-fold.

While the publishing industry is hard to predict, this century has seen a steady rise in independent publishers interested in foreign authors. The combination of high-quality books, dedicated translators and multi-faceted support for translation has earned Catalan literature a place on the world stage.

Mara Faye Lethem


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