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The Value of Reading Translated Fiction

Aviya Kushner’s essay on translated literature in the U.S. is an interesting mix of provocation, insight, and misrepresentation. Her main argument is more or less that:

It’s not that Americans aren’t interested in the world at all. It’s just that we seem to want someone else to do the ­heavy ­lifting required to make a cultural connection. As the ­Peruvian-­born writ­er Daniel Alarcón ob­serves, Americans would rather read stories by an American about Peru than a Peruvian writer translated into English. “There’s a certain curiosity about the world that’s not matched by a willingness to do the work,” Alarcón said in a phone interview from his home in Oakland, California. “So what happens is that writers of foreign extraction end up writing about the world for Americans.”

Like much in this essay, there’s an element of truth here, although Kushner has elided certain other facts that might trouble her argument. True, the bestsellers among U.S. "foreign" fiction tend to be American authors who are immigrants or children of immigrants, and this probably has something to do with Kushner’s thesis. But there are clearly other factors at work: large presses, who are better-poised to plaster up wall-to-wall publicity, are more interested in taking on multi-ethnic English-language authors than to translate (translations are expensive, after all, and it’s self-defeating conventional wisdom that they don’t get published because they’re too risky); it’s also easier to put authors living in the U.S. on tour and get them TV and radio appearances (and keep in mind many foreign writers can’t speak English well enough to do effective publicity appearances at all).

Kushner also plays a little coy with the facts. By now we’ve all heard that

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is reading outside the lines, as anyone who walks through a European airport bookstore can attest: Twenty-five percent of books published in Spain in 2004 were translations, according to Hoffman’s study. In Italy the figure was 22 percent, and in South Korea 29 percent. Even China, with four percent, had a higher proportion of translations than the United States.

Again, somewhat true: most other nations do read more translated literature than the U.S., and the 3 percent (or less) that translations hold of our book market is abysmal. But other nations’ interest in translations is in large part of necessity: a nation like South Korea, with only a tiny fraction of the U.S.’s population, is much more reliant on translated literature to simply fill the shelves. There would not be a book market in many of these countries without translated books.

Kushner is at her strongest when making the case for what differentiates a truly foreign fiction from one written by a multi-ethnic author living in the U.S.:

    But from the first translation of the Bible onward,
    what Grushin describes was always the translator’s role: to go to
    another culture and bring back what matters. It was sort of
 like immigration with a
    ­built-­in return trip. A good translator must create and inhabit a
    place that does not fully exist—a land between
    languages—because it is impossible to reproduce another
    language exactly. A translator must bring over what is most important, as
    accurately as ­possible.

    A bilingual writer, on the other hand, might omit the
    dirty laundry, inside jokes, or other intimate markers of a culture, such
    as a scandalous reference to a prime minister’s ­sexual
    ­harassment travails that matter only to the small number of residents
    of his country, or a joke on, say, Chairman Mao’s appearance. A
    novelist is more interested in story than in accuracy, but most translators
    think about exactness, and try to honor it, in their ­way.

    Now, sadly, we have forgotten what it is to live
    between languages, to have translators who inhabit the space between
    tongues. We prefer to read of a Bosnian immigrant in New York instead of a
    Bosnian man in Sarajevo, written by a Bosnian. This way, at least we can
    recognize New ­York.

I’m sympathetic to much of this, but in the end I must wonder if what Kushner is objecting to here isn’t so much too-familiar writing as just plain bad writing.

The title of Kusner’s essay is telling: McCulture. So is the fact that in her critique of literature she spends a significant amount of space chastizing Americans who travel abroad but never leave the few dressed-up avenues where all the locals speak English and one can buy bastardized versions of the local culture.

Fair enough: America does have a problem with McCulture, and I’ve seen far too many travelers of just the kind Kushner describes. But I must wonder if what Kushner has a problem with is an inherent flaw in English-language fiction written by multi-ethnic authors, or if her problem is rather with what she perceives as the reading public’s taste for banal fiction somewhat exoticized by an author’s lineage.

That is all to say that I find Kushner’s arguments about the inherent advantage of writing in, or reading from, a foreign language unconvincing. That’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate arguments to be made, only that I don’t think Kushner’s are them.

I’m generally suspicious of moralistic arguments for reading translations, as if translations were the vegetables of the American reader’s diet. (Try making that argument in the many nations where the bestsellers in translation are Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling.) I read translations because the books genuinely interest me, just like I read American books that interest me. Maybe the fact that so many recent translations appeal to me has something to do with the fact that only about 350 of them were published here last year, and the selections were largely made by small presses that care more about quality of writing than making a profit.

Yes, Americans should be a little more curious about world literature, and yes, if they were they’d probably know a little more about the world at large. This, I suppose, is an argument for reading translations, but the problem is that it can also be an argument for so many other things: genuine tourism, learning about world history, acquiring a second language, knowing people from foreign countries, watching foreign films, listening to foreign music, foreign art, foreign TV, foreign food . . .

Which is all to say, Kushner’s essay is interesting, but on balance a little light itself.

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2 comments to The Value of Reading Translated Fiction

  • Justus

    Aviya’s argument rests on this claim:
    The pioneers knew it, the colonists knew it: There are certain things we must know personally if we want to create a dream of a future.
    There is no argument given, merely a leap of faith, that translated fiction is somehow a necessary component of “things we must know to create a dream of a future”.
    It’s not surprising for someone to make that argument given the cultural baggage but it ignores the fact that the vast majority of the world doesn’t have Western Style literacy. Are other stories unimportant to this Future Dream simply because they — for whatever reason — don’t fit easily into the traditional publishing forms (e.g. the oral histories of StoryCorps)?
    Let me add that it is especially unclear why translated fiction (and not, say memoirs) are to be given such a privileged place at the table.
    I think the author also brings up the spectre of utilitarianism in translations, which I doubt is a desired conclusion, but does nothing to address it.
    Why care about Arabic translated fiction? Because terrorism and oil prices have raised the international profile of the peoples of that language. But then why care about some unknown and untranslated Mongolian author? How do we reconcile either a purely democratic or a Real Politic motivation for translations — which would surely mean that the vast majority of translated fiction comes from the BRIC nations of Brazil, Russian, India, and China (with maybe Indonesia thrown in as well) — with the apparent desire to see “small markets” like Mongolia, Kenya, Mozambique, or Yiddish also catered to.
    (Also, what’s up with the ridiculous claim (not by the author, but quoted approving) that “You could probably almost read all the translations that come out in a year” when there were 356 new translations in 2008.)

  • qmab

    I found the essay annoying. She had her thesis — Americans want the world served to them on a familiar hot bun — and cherry-picked evidence to “prove” it. Maybe one school in France put the American students together, but I can name a hundred all over the world that don’t. And all that translated fiction being read abroad? Much of it is murder mysteries or self-help books. And don’t get me started on her notions about what translation is. It’s all very lofty sounding, but it has nothing to do with what literary or non-fiction translators actually do.
    The only interesting bit was noting the great number of “American” writers who are “hyphenated Americans.”
    But otherwise I had the sense of someone who had just thought about this for the first time and hadn’t checked to find out what other people — who have been studying it, and writing about it, or translating foreign fiction — might have to say about it. Bleah.

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