Literary Hub

On the Redemptive Generosity of Artistic Communities

holding hands

Earlier this summer I interviewed my friend and colleague Daniel Hahn, who had just given away £12,500—roughly $16,500. That’s a lot of money, and Danny is not a wealthy man. He’s a literary translator, a line of work with famously low rates, and even though he’s in high demand and tends to be prolific, there’s only so much even the decently paid translators can earn. And yet there it was: he’d just given away half the cost of a new car. Why would he do that?

Here’s another one for you: in 2003, when the translator Michael Henry Heim was 60 years old, he and his wife, Priscilla, gave away $734,000—their life’s savings. They did this anonymously, and their generosity only came out nine years later, after Heim’s death of cancer.

As with Danny, the Heims weren’t particularly rich. Michael Henry Heim was a prestigious and prodigious translator, and for 40 years he enjoyed a professorship at UCLA, but certainly a quarter-of-a-million dollars would have represented an enormous sum to him and his wife. They might have enjoyed lavish vacations with this money, or put it into a gigantic Southern California mansion—but instead they just gave it all away.

The interesting thing is that Danny and Heim gave their money to more or less the same place. Danny’s $16,500 went to establish a new translation award called the TA First Translation Prize, which awards £2,000 to a first-time translator and their editor. The Heims gave their money to establish a line of translation grants now called PEN/Heim grants, each worth a few thousand dollars, and which have so far funded hundreds of literary translation projects.

The reason I’m writing about them today is twofold: first of all, such generosity is noteworthy and should always be recognized; and secondly, it’s emblematic of the sort of values I see all around me in the field of literary translation, where I’ve worked for about a decade. Not everyone in my field gives away quite that much money, but all the time I see my colleagues demonstrate their love for their vocation through various acts of kindness. It’s their generosity that makes my field a rewarding place to be.

Altruism is a complex emotion with many different causes, so I don’t presume to know exactly why my colleagues give so much when they don’t have to. But I am certain that high among the reasons for acts of giving like those of Danny, the Heims, and many, many other colleagues is gratitude for everything the translation community has given them, and an intense desire to see our community remain strong so that it may so benefit the lives of others in the future.

It’s often said that to enjoy your work you have to find people who share your values, and certainly this is why I’ve stuck around so long in the world of translation. Here, money is not a primary motivation. There are high levels of curiosity, a desire to make a unique contribution to the life of our culture, an ethic of being responsible for the community, and a belief that the books we work with are truly important. I don’t mean to romanticize the translation world—I’ve seen pettiness, egos, and self-servingness. These things exist here, as they do everywhere, but they are not common, and they are easy to forget when the charitable values this field embraces loom so much larger. There is a real idealism in the work of translation, and this is a place where one can nourish their idealism, even when other parts of life try to turn us into cynics. Truly, if this wasn’t the case I don’t think I would have been able to sustain myself very long here. Let me quote a little of Danny on how he feels about this field:

The world of people who translate books and publish translations and champion international writing is the most extraordinarily collegial, optimistic, generous tribe I’ve been a part of; every person I know does much more than they’re paid for, everyone is driven by a sense of mission, or a feeling of community, or a drive towards a common good. Every experienced translator I’ve ever met puts a lot of work into helping out those following after them.

I feel the same, and thoughts such as these have been important to remember when the news out of our national government is so grim. We hear stories of immense brutality every day, like ICE agents destroying families, endangering lives, and making sport of killing people’s dreams. Or we watch a Republican legislature attempt to throw millions of impoverished Americans off health care in order to give the rich a tax cut. Or we see that a businessman who is scared to open his taxes to public scrutiny, who has lied in the most grotesque and shameless manner, and who is a serial abuser of women has won the Presidency of the United States, and (if the polls are to be believed) still receives the ongoing support of perhaps as many as 100 million Americans.

These are dire truths that we must grapple with as citizens of this nation. On election night, when I saw that this country really was capable of electing an individual like Donald Trump, I felt as though I had been transported to an entirely new place. I felt like something had been stolen from me. I really could not believe this was possible, and it shook me to my core. And then, in the weeks following the election, I watched the neo-fascist alt-right emerged; I saw a spike in hate crimes; and I witnessed a proud, angry, and hateful white nationalism that had always been a suppressed part of America come into the mainstream.

Undoubtedly many of us were disgusted and betrayed to see what had been hiding under our radar in a country we thought we knew. We should be disturbed at this realization—this is really odious stuff—but we shouldn’t let it define us. It would be factually false and intellectually dishonest to ignore the great good there is here in America. And that is why today I have told you about what I see in the translation world. This community, and so many other artistic communities all throughout America, are also the fabric of this country, even if their good deeds are largely invisible in the cable news cycles, opinion polls, and social media feeds that are now central in shaping our idea of the US.

If Trump can activate much of the bad that America has to offer—make it more visible and give it empowerment and courage—then I think the artistic community has a role in activating the good. If we are ever to defeat Trump—and more importantly, what he stands for—we must make this country see everything about itself that is not Trump. This is one of our duties now, and we are equal to it: we are creative, talented, ambitious people, and we have powerful tools for highlighting this other America, our America. We should take some time out from our indignation and irony to make visible the parts of our world that inspire us.

I am not surprised to see many in my own translation community already doing just this, for this is what translators do by nature: our work is nothing if not the art of making visible something that was formerly unavailable to us. A book that never was a part of America—that virtually nobody here even knew existed—through translation it can be read and known, and just like that our picture of the world is that much larger.

One of the reasons I enjoy translation so much is that in order to show us these things, a translator must be selflessness. He or she must care for a text that belongs to another person, another culture—they must show immense resourcefulness and dedication to this book that is not even theirs. Accordingly, translation is a field in which respect for the other is extraordinarily high, and where you often encounter self-abnegation out of respect for a higher purpose. To me, these are the foundations of an ideal community. Michael Henry Heim embodied much of this ethos when he explained why he himself did not write books, despite translating so many of them:

I’m often asked that question. My answer is simple: There are so many wonderful books that need to be translated, and this is what I know how to do best—I’m not being modest, just honest. As long as there are untranslated books in the world, I know that this is where my duty lies. I have some ideas I could write about if I ever started to, but I prefer to work on those books that I already know can change people’s lives.

I’ve just said very much about the world of translation, so let me conclude by talking about something very different from translation—for there are many ways that those in the arts can change lives. In 1973, a young economist named Sebastião Salgado gave up a prestigious and well-paid job at the World Bank to begin a tenuous life as a photographer. At first the work was lowly and poorly paid, but in the 40 years since he decided to change his life, Salgado has photographed more of the world than any other person on Earth. In the process he has won virtually every honor available to photographers.

His work is extraordinary, and if you have never seen it, I encourage you to google the name “Sebastião Salgado” immediately. Every photograph Salgado takes looks as though it comes from an epic, three-hour, blockbuster film, and also from the Bible. The level of detail in each photo is astonishing, and he photographs people as I have never seen them anywhere else. Even in the small reproductions that I have spent hours looking at in books of Salgado’s photos, the sense of enormity is unmistakable—enormity of landscape, enormity of emotion, enormity of the significance of every person he photographs. Salgado’s career has been defined by photographs of the forgotten: communities devastated by drought in Saharan Africa, thousands of Brazilians carrying 100-pound sacks of mud up rickety, ten-story ladders; a sea of people rushing through a train station in India; nomads traveling through the highlands of the Andes.

Salgado’s photographs have brought attention to countless international causes, and they have spotlighted much of the unremarked grace and heroism that exists every day on Earth, but they can sometimes be excruciating to look at. In particular his Saharan series is brutal. I always think of one of a young boy suffering from a famine: he is being weighed, his whole body suspended in a sling, and you can see his bones clearly through his skin. His posture shows such complete abjection—it is an awful sight.

Salgado himself has been deeply affected by the conditions he has seen. In the 2014 film that Wim Wenders made about him, The Salt of the Earth, he reveals the story of his loss of faith in humanity: the breaking point came after witnessing mass murder during the Rwandan genocide, including that of a dear friend, his wife, and his children. “My soul was sick,” Salgado said, “I no longer believed in anything, in any salvation for the human species.” These horrors made him lose his faith in photography and stop his life’s work.

Salgado’s response to this crisis of faith was to plant trees. After years of hard work, he and his wife, Lélia, had reforested some 17,000 acres of devastated Brazilian rain forest with more than 4 million trees. These years of restoring life to a devastated part of Brazil helped Salgado to see enough good in the world to resume photography, and in 2002 he embarked on a momentous project titled Genesis. For eight years he traveled to some of the most remote places on the Earth, capturing natural beauty all throughout the world.

The artistic world thrives on utopian visions like these. To find a life in the arts requires indisputable hope and optimism, for it is a vocation that sits uneasily within the prevailing capitalist culture. I think we are all hopeful people, and I think right now we need to call on that part of ourselves to believe in our country and make it what we want it to be. I would like to ask that everybody reading this take some step, big or small, to reveal and encourage the America that we live in—the true face of this country, and the America that will still be here long after the tides of hate, resentment, and buffoonery have subsided.

Utopian Visions to Help See the World Anew

Workers · Genesis
Sebastião Salgado

Understanding a Photograph
John Berger

The Man Between: Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation
Eds. Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, Russell Scott Valentino

Hope in the Dark
Rebecca Solnit

Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape
Lauret Savoy

Education for Critical Consciousness
Paulo Freire

bell hooks

Originally published in Literary Hub.

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