José Saramago

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What is your interpretation of the quote: “Writers make national literature, while translators make universal literature.”?

Quick answer:

In considering this quote, consider commenting on how writers tend to write in one specific language while translators transcend language. Writers can make a book popular in a country where the language of the book is spoken. Translators, on the other hand, can make a book popular across the world.

Expert Answers

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To comment on the quote, which is often attributed to the Portuguese writer José Saramago, consider the distinction the quote makes between a writer and a translator.

The quote limits the writer to a country while allowing the translator a possible worldwide reach. The writer is restricted to one language: the language of their country. A translator has the ability to transcend countries due to their knowledge of multiple languages. It’s like the writer is stuck in a specific territory. They’re bound to the land of their language. The translator, however, is free to explore. The translator’s freedom can connect countries and thus create a universal literature.

Of course, one translator is unlikely to turn a book into a universal text. Most translators work only in one other language. The award-winning translator Richard Howard focuses on translating French works into English. Howard translated Les Fleurs du mal, by French poet Charles Baudelaire, into English. Another translator would have to translate Les Fleurs du mal into Spanish, a third translator would have to translate it into German, and so on. Perhaps it’d be worthwhile to note that translators by themselves don’t make a work universal, but together, they make a work universal.

It also might be interesting to point out that some writers are translators. Baudelaire, for instance, was also a translator. He translated the works of Edgar Allen Poe into French. In Baudelaire’s case, it could be said that he made national literature and universal literature.

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