Chad Post writes:
It’s not that the literary scene is anti-foreigners, it’s that the marketplace is anti-language.
That’s pretty much the issue. There have been enough bestselling translations of the past few years to prove that American readers aren’t adverse to translations. No, what they’re adverse to are creepy modernist-style-Euro-brain books of the likes of Thomas Bernhard. And, well, that’s what presses that do a lot of translated fiction tend to like to publish. So when people think of translation, they tend to think of that item to the left there. (Though I actually do like asparagus quite a bit, which I suppose explains why I also read tons of translations.)
But anyway, it’s fine by me if our illustrious publishers of literary translation want to focus on challenging fiction. I like to read it, and if the publishers I love can make a modest living by enriching the lives of those of us who care to read good literature, more power to them. But I do think a lot of the stigma that gets assigned to “translation” should really be left at the feet of “difficult Euro fiction.”
Of course there’s a certain middle ground where you can have your translation cake and eat it too–and some publishers of translations are beginning to dwell there (great for them!)–but part of me really wishes that our culture these days was more open to diving into a sea of prose that might not produce clear results for 100 pages or so. It’s that lack of openness to encountering a new experience that doesn’t immediately pay off that most depresses me about this issue. It seems that I see this a lot in museums these days, where patrons will tend to rush through an exhibit of difficult art rather than linger and let the piece begin to be absorbed into the mind. (Though in other forms of art–classical music and movies in particular–I’ve seen audiences ride out some difficult works and ultimately enjoy them.)
I think that’s more or less what Sven Birkerts is complaining about in this recent and much-discussed essay, although I also think it’s intellectually lazy to blame the Internet for this. Not that Birkerts is completely doing so, but now that digital reading is such a big subject, and now that digital devices are beyond ubiquitous, the Internet is getting the lion’s share of the blame for the ever-present, vastly overstated death of attention span. It’s all-too-easy to forget that there are cultural trends dating back decades that helped sand down Americans’ taste for difficult fiction.