Why the Translation of Latin American Writers Matters

Getting English language pieces translated into other languages is a bit of a no-brainer when a literary work is successful; however, the same mindset rarely makes its way to pieces written by Latin American writers. Because of this, many Latin American authors are finding their works never make it to English speaking audiences―unless we’re talking about Borges, García Márquez or Cortázar, and this is truly a shame. Take for example Celia del Palacio’s biography of Lupe Velez. For Velez scholars, it’s considered the definitive work on the Mexican Spitfire; however, the book has never received an English translation, meaning only Spanish-speaking fans of the Mexican bombshell with a long career in Hollywood can read about her. Read on to learn more about the history of Latin American literature, how it bridges cultures and how translated works have inspired, and continue to inspire, English lit.

Long History of Literature

Latin American literature houses an extraordinary wealth of the written word, offering readers an assortment of writings that can teach, inspire and set the imagination off on magical journeys. With an assortment of languages in Latin America, including works in Spanish, Portuguese and Indigenous dialects, there is no end to the number of stories that deserve translation. Starting in the days of the Aztecs to Latin America’s own romantic period in the 19th century and gripping literature and histories of today, Latin Americans have produced marvelous work over hundreds of years that could produce a seemingly infinite number of books for English speakers to consume if translated.

Bridging Cultures

English-speakers tend to live in very Eurocentric bubbles while Latin Americans regularly expect English-created works to eventually get translated. The best way to think of this phenomenon is by picturing a one-way street, with English language media steadily traveling down the pipeline to Latin American audiences with very little exchange. Through translation, our fictional street widens into a two-lane road, allowing the free flow of works from both sides to get the recognition and attention they deserve.

When translated into English, readers around the world begin to understand the Latin American experience, whether through fiery romances or deep looks into issues currently affecting the writer’s country. Instead of letting other writers speak on how Latin Americans probably feel about something, translation allows the reader to get much closer to the writer’s feelings and worlds as it comes, almost, directly from them, albeit in a different tongue.

However, this exchange isn’t a one-way street into a single writer’s mind. When translated, cultures have the ability to come together and share their unique experiences with one another. This bridging can inspire readers from all corners of the globe to complete numerous activities, including becoming writers themselves or take action on something they care about in their country after reading about the escapades of a Latin American writer. When cultures are allowed to melt together by the free exchange of ideas, everyone benefits, no matter who or where they are.

Past Inspirations

There’s plenty of evidence that translations can inspire, both when Latin American writers read works written in English and when English writers get inspiration from Latin American writers as well.

One of the most prominent Latin American writers, Colombian Gabriel García Márquez, grew up reading the works of James Joyce and William Faulkner, finding their works pushing him into a writing career. As García Márquez worked to perfect his craft, he regularly turned to English writers for inspiration. His books, including his magnus opus One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, became classics of magic realism and thus translated into English, experiencing a renewed popularity as English speakers began to devour his work. Writers like Michael Chabon, Toni Morrison and Don DeLillo cite García Márquez as an inspiration.

But García Márquez is far from the only Latin American to experience success from their translated writings. The Latin American Boom of the 60s and 70s opened the door for writers like Julio Cortázar and Mario Vargas Llosa to experience success in non-Spanish speaking markets as well. Unfortunately, the boom died down and while English-speaking publishers today are more likely to translate books than they would in the past, we have yet to see the same vigor in publishing Latin American works as we did some 50 years ago.

In this globalized world, we are quite likely to know a few―or several―Latin Americans: neighbors, coworkers, perhaps even spouses, who have transplanted their lives to the U.S. or Canada. Reading Latin American literature can bring us closer together by expanding our understanding of other cultures. Latin American writers have a wealth of knowledge, culture and unique musings to share with the world, but getting their works translated into English can feel like an uphill battle. Without translation, readers around the world are missing out on the opportunity to read novel and often unique works, bridge culture gaps and gain inspiration from Latin American writers. In the coming years, we hope to see more Latin American literature translated, and in the meantime, if you’re looking to get your own work professionally translated, give us a call.


Photo by Mariia Zakatiura on Unsplash