‘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.)
Confronted 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.