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It's Not Really Translation That They Hate . . .

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.

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3 comments to It's Not Really Translation That They Hate . . .

  • I couldn’t agree more, Scott. I remember when I first read Under the Volcano, and was having a tough time, that around a hundred pages in, exactly the point that you mention, something just clicked and I got it; the rhythm of the prose had sunk in, and it all started to make sense. I read the remainder of the novel in an enthralled state.

    Some works need to be re-experienced altogether to yield up their treasures. I didn’t care for Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker the first time I saw it, but it stayed with me and nagged at my memory. I gave it a second shot, and was mesmerized. Knowing what to expect helped a lot.

    Simone Weil said that “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity,” and she was right. But there is a pay-off. Works that need close attention and patience often have the most to give back.

  • OK, but then why do we have to hide “translated by so-and-so” in tiny print inside the book?

    I think a certain sort of American still prefers to read American writers, and thinks of American writing as more “real”…while a certain sort of Egyptian (many, many, many of us) would prefer to read translation. For instance.

    Asparagus is good. Asparagus has wide appeal. Doesn’t it? Just add a little butter, if you’re leery….

  • Stephen

    It is surprising and strange to see people privileged enough to have the leisure time, education and money, which is everyone that I know but for the monomaniacs whom I respectfully and fearfully leave alone, reading books like the Twilight series. Perhaps their refusal to discriminate is because they don’t actually read sentences and books. Instead, they embrace the idea of reading and participating in some group phenomenon. I think that the new publishing model is greatly responsible. It is my understanding that during the golden age of publishing, when publishing houses were navigated by charismatic leaders (editors), quality writing was valued with the understanding that it would make a profit over the long term, if not immediately. Unfortunatley, the business-heads took over and now it is the marketing department that has the most influence regarding which authors are to be published in order to make the quickest profit.

    I think a major issue is that the business-heads

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