Our hunger for translated literature

Geometries_Cover‘We live in a world,’ Chip Rolley declares on the welcome page of the Sydney Writers’ Festival, ‘that is ultimately understood only through language.’ Let’s bracket the objections of mystics (for whom language is an obstruction, not a key) and sceptics (who would question our assumption that we can understand the world to any meaningful degree, let along ultimately). We need not go the whole Derridean hog and claim that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ to recognise the central role of language in how we construct the world, both metaphorically (how we conceive of it) and literally (how we shape it).

As such, the diversity of our languages, literatures and the different ways they offer to see the world vastly enriches our cultural life. Communications technology and trade have brought the farthest places of the world within reach of each other, but in doing so, erode difference. Erich Auerbach, writing in 1952 (translated into English in 1969 by Edward Said), sees the writing on the wall:

Our earth, the domain of Weltliteratur [world literature], is growing smaller and losing diversity…. The process of imposed uniformity, which originally derived from Europe, continues its work, and hence serves to undermine all individual traditions…man will have to accustom himself to existence in a standardised world, to a single literary culture, only a few literary languages, and perhaps even a single literary language. And herewith the notion of Weltliteratur would be at once realized and destroyed.

As those globalising, centripetal forces subsume the variety of the periphery of the world in favour of the core – whether that is Washington or Beijing – the number of different ways we have to think, decreases. That may be of vital practical importance in the future. Much as the reduced biodiversity in crop production leaves our food supply vulnerable, rapidly and recklessly divesting ourselves of cultural diversity is reducing humanity’s ability to adapt to new circumstances. ‘Must that part of their cultural habit that internalises the techniques of ecological sanity,’ Gayatri Spivak asks, referring to certain Indian Aboriginals, ‘be irretrievably lost in the urgently needed process of integration, as a minority, into the nation state?’

Scarcity, or the prospect of scarcity, creates value (no-one was rhapsodising about the tactile pleasures of printed books fifty years ago), and as English spreads from one horizon to the other like a swarm of locusts, gobbling up minor languages in a few generations, we have begun to recognise that our linguistic ecosystem is a precious and vanishing resource. The international reach of today’s markets offer unprecedented access to the many literatures of the world, yet the choices we make as consumers of literature are dismally conservative. Native speakers of English are notorious monoglots; that’s almost inevitable, given the prestige and utility of the English language for business, trade and diplomacy – the pressure is on speakers of other languages to learn English, not the other way around. But we do have the advantage of being part of a vast readership, probably the most obvious one into which to translate. Even if we are reluctant to leave our linguistic comfort zone, at least we have the opportunity to sample a huge variety of literature, albeit in translation.

So do we read a lot of translated works? In 2007, PEN International commissioned a study among its local affiliates around the world to study the state of literary translation. The situation in the Anglophone world was abysmal:

The proportion of translated works as a percentage of the whole varies considerably among countries. As noted in the first chapter, there are very few translated works in the United States. In the UK, the most optimistic statistics indicate 6% of books are translations but this includes technical and non-fiction translations. Literary translation only makes up 2% of total output. In Australia, things are even worse. Barbara McGilvray and collaborators in Sydney indicate that fewer than half a dozen books are translated each year. The President of the New Zealand PEN Center noted that readers and even literary critics are often unaware that they are reading a translation, given that the fact is not highlighted.

In short, we Anglophone readers are a lazy and insular bunch. With an enormous range of literary variety at our fingertips, we opt in overwhelming numbers for the familiar – Jonathan Franzen, say, or Ian McEwan (that’s assuming we can be bothered to read anything more demanding than Stephen King or John Grisham, and that we are actually reading books, not just watching TV). The readership for translated fiction is tiny. Given the purview of this blog, it’s likely that you (Gentle Reader) are of a more cosmopolitan and adventurous inclination than the average reader. I will presume, then, that you can sympathise with my hunger to read literature from elsewhere: to get one’s teeth into something disconcertingly different, to encounter in the text resistance to one’s expectations, and by grappling with it, to expand as a reader. (Best of all, if you have recommendations, please get involved in the comments section and help me feed my hunger.)

words_without_bordersConfronted with such abundance, the problem is, simply, how does one choose? Those translated books that are readily available and widely advertised have been pre-selected by the market on criteria that are tangential, if not opposed, to literary merit. Today publishers are risk-averse, and the books they push are likely to offer a tourist-friendly oeuvre that confirms, rather than challenges, our preconceived view of a given literature and the culture from which it arises. Sites like Words Without Borders help, but the range can be bewildering. Ultimately, since there are many times more books worthy of reading than a lifetime will permit, methodically working through national canons is impossible, and one’s own idiosyncratic path, criss-crossing centuries and continents, will have to do.

But an intelligent selection would help to kick things off, to give some bases from which to start foraging and rummaging. Three Percent, an international literature blog based in Rochester University (named, ruefully, after the proportion of literature sold in the US that has been translated), runs an annual award for the best translated novel of the year; this year I’m going to read my way through the shortlist (feel free to join me on the LibraryThing group I’ve set up for that purpose, if you have the time and inclination). There’s also the Book Trust’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, whose shortlist was recently also announced. While all prizes necessarily reflect agenda and ideologies, these ones at least seem to be making a serious effort at extending their range across the world. If anyone can suggest other or better paths through the vast body of the translated literature, I’d love to hear them in the comments.

Joshua Mostafa

Joshua Mostafa is a fiction writer and doctoral candidate at the Writing and Society Centre, Western Sydney University, researching the poetics of prehistory in fiction. His novella Offshore (2019) won the 2019 Seizure Viva la Novella prize.

His creative practice explores the interstices of prose and metrical poetry, of narrative and the lyric, and of the written and the spoken word. He lives in the Blue Mountains.

More by Joshua Mostafa ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more–it’s depressing how little world literature we read, especially given that Anglophone literature is infamously conservative (formally speaking, and arguably politically, as well).

    Three Percent (which is great!) is actually the blog of an excellent publisher of literature in translation called Open Letter Books; their books are exceptional, and their site is worth visiting: http://openletterbooks.org/.

    Another great U.S. publisher, The Dalkey Archive (http://www.dalkeyarchive.com/) also publishers literature in translation, and publishes the journal, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, which often looks at various national literatures.

    New Directions is another great publisher of literature in translation (http://www.ndpublishing.com/)

    U.S. book reviewer, Scott Esposito, runs two excellent sites, http://quarterlyconversation.com/ and http://conversationalreading.com/ , which both run a lot of great pieces on world literature.

    There’s also the excellent site The Complete Review (http://www.complete-review.com/), which reviews a great deal of literature in translation, as well as a ton of more specialised sites that focus on national literatures, such as this (http://www.new-books-in-german.com/), and there’s also the http://www.worldliteratureforum.com/ too!

  2. Does it literally escape your notice that none of the books in Three Percent’s shortlist are translated from Asian languages? If so – fascinating.

    I applaud your plans and the general thrust of this post. It’s inspired me to continue my reading of books translated from Japanese, Chinese, Bengali, Thai…

  3. Hi there, Emmett. There’s actually a lot of scholarly and critical attention given to some key Japanese writers, but then (gasp!) even Nobel prize-winning Kenzaburo Oe’s list is mostly untranslated. The problem goes well beyond the Eurocentric focus of the shortlist mentioned here…

    But there are some good signs, like the Australian imprint Brass Monkey which is devoted to releasing new translations of Indian texts – http://www.brassmonkeybooks.com.au/

    1. Not sure to what degree the Kenzaburo Oe example is illustrative; half of Nobelist J.M.G. Le Clezio’s books haven’t been translated either, and he writes in French. But there’s a problem with translating literature in general (see, Translate This Book! by Scott Esposito and Annie Janusch) and even more so with Asian-language literatures. Brass Monkey is a great start (as is Melbourne-based journal Red Leaves, which is a bilingual Japanese/English mag). But, as a huge fan of lit in translation, I’d love to hear more about other web-based resources for all of the Chinese, Bengali and Thai books that you read.

  4. Um, Philip, I’m slightly confused because I didn’t think Josh was dismissing Asian language lit, though I know it’s been a criticism of Three Percent. Thought he was simply suggesting Three Percent as a place to begin.

    I’ve been thinking about literature-in-languages-other-than-English too. I’ve just been reading Granta‘s The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists, but other than translated classics and well-known works, I haven’t read much contemporary literature outside English. For shame.

    Coincidentally, Josh, last night I came across this lovely essay: A translator’s dilemma

    Thanks for the post.

    1. Thanks for the link, Jacinda – I’m relieved to see that others noticed the ommissions in the Three Percent shortlist.

      And sincere apologies if my initial comment seemed like a splutter at Joshua rather than the shortlisters – not my intention at all.

      1. Philip, I didn’t take it as such, but all response is welcome – it’s the internet after all, home of the flame 🙂

        I do tend to read a fair bit of translated literature, but I’m very much aware I’m only scratching the surface, and that what I stumble upon is limited by the market and the demand for translation. Actually I’ve read hardly any Asian literature – using the Australian meaning of ‘Asian’ – I’m half pom, half what we call ‘Asian’ back in the UK (i.e. the Subcontinent – and I read a fair bit of Indian and Bengali literature. Keen to get hold of that Granta anthology of Pakistani writers also.

        This semester I’m taking a class in comp lit, which has proven to be mostly about theory and hasn’t involved reading enough actual literature 🙁 But I’m sitting here between classes with a Chinese classmate so I’ll have to get some recommendations from him.

  5. Joshua, check Tottenville Review (http://Tottenvillereview.com) for reviews of translations. We also do debut work in English. But, for example, in our upcoming issue (coming this week) we have an essay review of three works in translation from Slovenia, a review of a chilean book, and more. I have been exposed to some great stuff through working there. Make sure to watch Archipelago Press. They put out some beautiful books, all translated.

  6. Ik ben het met je eens. We zijn allemaal veel te lui om iets in een andere taal te lezen. Ik lees in het nederlands en ook in het frans, deutsch and zweeds. het is jammer, dat de australische scholen zelden in buitelandse talen les geven.

    1. Good on you 🙂 It’s not just Australian schools, it’s education in the whole Anglosphere that places insufficient emphasis on foreign language teaching. Certainly in continental Europe people learn their neighbours’ languages much more commonly; a shame that Australia does not do the same – mutatis mutandis, of course: Asian and Aboriginal languages.

      1. Yes. My parents were educated in the Netherlands and at school learned four languages: their own plus German, French and English – English well enough to teach it on the migrant boat to Australia in 1955.

        What is touched on in your article is that we see the world according to the languages we speak (or at least understand). There are words in one language that are not translatable into another (e.g. ‘gemütlichkeit’ in German – it’s not the same as ‘kindliness’ or ‘pleasantness’ as Babylon.com would have it). Here in Australia we would have a much richer experience of our environment if we could speak just one native language. By allowing languages to die out, we are gradually asphyxiating ourselves. As writers, we have a responsibility to bring the richest possible experiences to our readers.

        Poetry (in any language) is able to achieve something prose finds difficult, because the words in a poem can transcend their normal and expected meanings.

        The really interesting thing I experience is that when I read in Dutch I think in Dutch, when I read in French I think in French, when I read in English … An English translation of a French work cannot give the reader the same experience as the French original, because the reader will be thinking in English, with all its non-Frenchness. And yet, translations are valuable, as they bring some of the richness of others’ worlds to the non-speaker.

        1. Daan, what you say about thinking in different languages is spot on – the asphyxiating metaphor is particularly apt. Who was it who defined poetry as “that which is lost in translation” … I forget.

          On translations – you are right, they do not convey the original in all its authenticity; but I think they have a specific beauty all of their own, that derives from their strangeness. Not an intended or affected strangeness but one that arises of the circumstance of their composition. There is a gap between the original text and the language into which they are being translated; this new text, the translation, exists in a space between the languages. It is both an artefact of difference and distance, and a new creation, full of what we would usually call intertextuality, except that it refers to itself in another form – “intratextuality”? All I know is that there some special quality to a fine translation, that is not directly related to authenticity…

          1. I think the quote is from Robert Frost.

            Your idea of intratextuality: that state of the translation living neither in one language nor the other, has it be a vehicle to highlight the different ways of being in one language or the other. Maybe a translation is actually in a language of its own, as it struggles to be true to the original (which it can only do to a limited extent) and accessible in the other. Many translators claim that they cannot render the original literally, but have to translate the ‘soul’ so that it may speak to the reader’s.

            At the core of translation is the question: “How do I communicate what the writer is saying to a reader who is ignorant of most of the assumptions being made?” It occurs to me that this question may be fruitfully asked by those who try to interpret whale-song – are they failing to put themselves in the whales’ world. But I digress.

    1. Your comment reminds me that the issues surrounding translation are not necessarily limited to translation between languages but also between cultures using the same language. Dialect-to-dialect involves the same issues of cultural differences, assumptions and inability to render faithfully from one to the other. I have found, for instance, that it was not until after I devoured many books of and about Irish folktales and myths that I started to understand the Irish writers.

  7. Thank you! I have been thinking and ranting and writing about the well-defended monolingualism of anglo cultures and what effect it has on the common sensibility. . I recently made up my list of Must Read books from writers included in The Best European Writing 2010 (ed, Hemon; Dalkey Press) and asked the library to order the 2011 edition. I’m going to read these books on this list you propose and follow in the discussion. I have to register at the Librarything thing, right? I’ve ordered Cesar Aria,Tequi, Erpenbeck. I’m about to commit to a Kindle. Are these titles generally found as e-books also? This list and forum I think is just the thing for some wished-for directed reading and thinkiness.

  8. Thank you Joshua for your article, well written and informative and a good kick up the arse for me as I’ve read so few translations; though Haruki Murakami seems quite available. Off to investigate and to spread the word. Overland needs a Facebook etc Share function.
    Thanks to the other contributors too.

    1. Inezbar, you do have to register at LibraryThing to join the group but I’m pretty sure there is a free option available – limited to 200 books, using the crack dealer principle – get em hooked and then they’ll buy 🙂 I’m not sure about the availability of these books in electronic form.

      Daan (blog software prevents any more threaded replies, I think to avoid spilling over the viewable margins, so I’m replying down here), the process of translation is very interesting – this review of Peaver and Volkhonsky’s translation of War and Peace is a classic example of the problems involved, I think: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v30/n10/michael-wood/crabby-prickly-bitter-harsh.

      Anthony, Olga: glad to have provoked some reading of translated literature 🙂

  9. This was a really interesting read. I´m writing an essay on translation of minority languages at the moment and found your points fascinating. Thanks 🙂

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.