The Globalization of English

Tim Parks continues to ply his interesting thesis about the rise of a kind of quasi-lingua franca English as writers attempt to create books that are easy to translate:

It was when I was invited to review in the same article a translation of Hugo Claus’s Wonder (1962) alongside Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses (2003), and Gerbrand Bakker’s The Twin (2006) that it occurred to me that over the forty years between Claus and the others an important change had occurred. These more recent novels had, yes, been translated, from Norwegian and Dutch into English, but it was nothing like the far more arduous task of translating Claus and many of his contemporaries. Rather, it seemed that the contemporary writers had already performed a translation within their own languages; they had discovered a lingua franca within their own vernacular, a particular straightforwardness, an agreed order for saying things and perceiving and reporting experience, that made translation easier and more effective. One might call it a simplification, or one might call it an alignment in different languages to an agreed way of going about things. Naturally, there was an impoverishment. Neither of these authors have the mad fertility of Claus; but there was also a huge gain in communicability, particularly in translation where the rhythm of delivery and the immediacy of expression were free from any sense of obstacle.

Its certainly an intriguing idea, but the way Parks goes about making it isn’t rigorous at all. Of course Petterson and Bakker are easier to translate than Claus, but probably just about anyone this side of Joyce is easier to translate than Claus.

There’s no doubt that globalization is causing a boom in translation and international book sales, which gives some inducement to writers to create something that’s more palatable internationally and easier to render into another language. But when I look at the international writers whom I’ve found most interesting lately, I just don’t see it. (And I’ll have an interview available soon with the very good translator of a very good international writer who completely refutes Parks’ thesis.) What makes their work most interesting are precisely those things that translators labor so hard to bring into English.

Moreover, I think Parks puts far too much emphasis onto the writer. If you look at the case of the bestselling international author in recent memory, Stieg Larsson, it wasn’t the author who attempted to make his style palatable to an international audience but the editor. Famously, the books were eviscerated in hopes of reaching something that would play better on an international market. In another famous instance, if was Knopf, not Murakami, who chopped up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to make that book “more suitable” for an American market.

I can’t think of any author working today worth reading who writes purposely toward an international style for reasons of marketability. But I can think of tons of cases where the more sales-oriented presses out there will choose to translate the author that imposes the least burdens on their editors, translators, and readers.

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It’s not just globalization. Norwegians I can’t read, but Dutch writers have started to write far more simply than they did in the past. The great stylists (Couperus, Reve, Elsschot) are dead and gone, and the present publishing climate favours books with simpler language, and comparatively short sentences.

I think it’s a great impoverishment.

I haven’t read any of the writers mentioned here, so I can’t weigh in on the Claus v. Petterson question of diminishing language complexity, but I think the point is really interesting. I’m living in Berlin now, and the version of English that has developed here as the lingua franca is really interesting. It has to have affected the psycho-genesis of writing in Europe in a way that’s more complicated than just “impoverishment” or market-orientation…even perhaps in a manner that’s agitating against the lingua francization..


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