Essays and In Person

Confessions of a Literary Jingoist

By posted at 6:00 am on May 15, 2012 8

Recently, I watched an Iranian, an Italo-Palestinian, and an American Jew take the stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, backed by a string quartet. There’s a punch line in there somewhere. (A reporter for the Village Voice quipped, “Even Rush Limbaugh couldn’t make up a funnier parody of what Upper East Side Manhattanites do on a Tuesday night.”) “Exit Strategies” was one of the first events of this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and its participants, Marjane Satrapi, Rula Jabreal, and Tony Kushner, would repeatedly and somewhat apologetically call it an “experiment.” The Kronos Quartet — never a group to back down from an experiment — was meant to play pretty much nonstop, as the writers spoke with (or over) them. Kushner had the most success, reading a poem about grief and working with the cadences of the music. Satrapi talked about the moment the world’s view of Iran shifted from princes and flying carpets to riots and religious extremists; she was improvising warmly but apprehensively, which left her occasionally shouting past the quartet. But Jabreal barely acknowledged the musicians at all, determined to deliver a cavalcade of political talking points: the wars, corruption in Washington, the health-care crisis, and the Republican primary field, all dredged up for a clearly liberal audience that probably never wanted to hear about Michele Bachmann again.

It was a strange night. The Village Voice reporter likened the Kronos Quartet to the band on the sinking Titanic, but it wasn’t as bad as all that — and he admitted as much, too. It was definitely an experiment, interesting at times, nerve-wracking at others, but the thing that struck me was the conversational clash that followed, like when Jabreal asked Satrapi what she thought the 2012 election looked like outside the United States, as the quartet plowed on in the background, and a clearly frustrated Satrapi said that she was elated by the music — and really wasn’t interested in talking about Mitt Romney. The declaration earned her the biggest applause of the night.

They both had fair points: the event was ostensibly about music; the program didn’t promise a dissection of American politics. But it was an opportunity for two Middle Eastern women to talk about their vantages from abroad, specifically from such cosseted places as Iran and Palestine — views that are a fair bit harder to find than most in the American literary landscape. This was the seventh annual PEN World Voices Festival, which brings together writers from around the world to, according to this year’s introduction, “celebrate the power of the written word in action.” It purports the values of PEN itself, whose charter states that: “Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.”

PEN World Voices is one of the foremost international literary events in New York City, a place that, as the center of American publishing and home to a basically alarming number of writers, looks inward — celebrates the local, perhaps — more often than not. I’m as guilty as any of literary jingoism: I attend maybe one reading per week in Brooklyn or Manhattan, and it may be partly my own fault, but the writers I encounter nearly always hail from the Anglophone world, whether they’re native-born or have emigrated here or to the UK. Most of the authors I read fall into the same category. The topics I’m interested in, the regions in which I’d like to see a story set — all of these fall within the confines of English-speaking lands. And I think this is probably a personal failing. Maybe I don’t need to know how Mitt Romney comes off in Iran. But so little writing from the vast majority of the world penetrates the American literary scene, and my own personal literary scene. It’s an age-old complaint, but things don’t really seem to be changing. You can seek out literature from just about anywhere — and now it’s easier than any previous point in history — but it’s a hell of a lot harder to bring it into the conversation.

There’s that famous and damning statistic: translated works make up just three percent of the American book market (and, in contrast, sixty percent of all the translated literature in the world comes from English). The University of Rochester, who named their translated literature site, Three Percent, after the fact, suggests that when narrowed down to literary fiction and poetry, the number drops to a paltry 0.7 percent. There contemporary notable exceptions, from genre (Stieg Larsson and the European crime-novelist wave that has sprung up in his stead) to mega-bestsellers (Paulo Coelho, Umberto Eco) to the literary masters (Gabriel García Márquez, Orhan Pamuk, José Saramago, and a handful of others) that have become permanent fixtures in our canon. And of course there are the hippest of the modern-day literary heavyweights, Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño. But the majority of translated literature remains largely obscure, lauded in niches within the publishing and reading worlds but failing to impact the broader public.

The translation question is an old and thorny one. Foreign books, anecdotal wisdom suggests, are a big gamble: “There’s a general perception in the trade that these books can be difficult to sell,” one publisher told the Guardian. “As long as that persists it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Reading in translation is often a tricky prospect: the conflict between readability and remaining faithful to the original language lies at the heart of the ethics of translation. Look at the line-by-line differences between Murakami’s translators, Jay Rubin, Alfred Birnbaum, and Phillip Gabriel. Some passages are wildly different, clunky with too-literal translations, or, on the other end of the spectrum, full of Western idioms and surprisingly liberal interpretations of Murakami’s words. It leaves the reader in translation feeling a little distrustful, and inadequate. I can’t imagine learning Japanese — I only got past high-school level French!

coverAnd perhaps part of the trouble is that translation means more than replacing a word with its foreign equivalent: there’s a broader cultural undercurrent at work when we talk about Americans and international literature, a question of how a book will read on this side of the Atlantic. Take, for example, Tim Parks’ diatribe against Jonathan Franzen and Freedom, from the New York Review of Books about a year ago. He begins with an absurd press release from the American publisher of Thomas Pletzinger, a German novelist: “Pletzinger is German, but you wouldn’t know it from his debut, which is both wise and worldly.” Parks is incredulous:

What a wonderful insight this careless moment of blurb-talk gives us into the contemporary American mindset! We want something worldly, but if it seems too German, or perhaps just too foreign, we become wary. As my mailbag indicates, the literary community is very much an international phenomenon, but not, it would seem, a level playing field. To make it in America Pletzinger must shed his German-ness as if he were an immigrant with an embarrassing accent.

coverParks quickly moves on to Franzen, whom he accuses of aggressive, list-heavy American-ness: he takes fault with the European fascination with Freedom, saying that there are no Italian words for half of Franzen’s lists, from foosball table to “mechanized recliner.” The Italian translator chimed in, indignant, in the comments, giving exact translations for foosball and La-Z-Boy and insisting that, despite Parks’ claim, the Italian for “mechanized recliner” is just as ugly as the English. But I think that the broader point still stands. Reading The Corrections last year — that’s a solid decade after everyone else read it, which I quickly learned when I tried to discuss it with people — I couldn’t help but feel like all those cultural references were incredibly dated, a lot of otherwise engaging prose weighed down by Y2K-era jargon. Cultural references are tricky, whether they’re traveling across geographical or temporal borders. But is something substantial lost with their removal?

coverThree Percent is trying to revive May as “World in Translation Month,” and it’s an obviously laudable goal. But it remains to be seen how they — or anyone — can effectively market an entire world of literature that’s still failed to catch on amongst the majority of the American reading public. I’ve seen the attempts: articles, blogs, word-of-mouth from friends or booksellers, offering up blind recommendations, the author’s name, title, and original language, and I don’t know how to parse it. I’m guilty myself: just the other day, halfway through Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, the first book in translation I’ve read in a long while, I found myself trying to talk about it with a few friends. “He’s Senegalese,” I said. They looked at me expectantly, waiting for something more helpful than nationality. “It’s about colonialism.” They nodded. “It was translated by the woman who did The Little Prince,” I tossed in. “Ah!” one said. A relief: a cultural frame of reference. I give most books a hard sell, but I had so few tools at my disposal, reading a Senegalese book translated from French half a century ago, and fault here lies with me, not with Kane, whose book is extraordinary and subtle and philosophical and unlike anything else I’ve read about the colonial experience, which, coming from a person who essentially majored in postcolonialism, is saying something.

Ambiguous Adventure is part of a Melville House series called the Neversink Library, which “champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored.” I’m taking that last designation to heart. There’s a danger in become too prescriptive with foreign literature: we should be reading it, that it’s good for us, that it’s our duty as citizens of the world to read books from every corner of it. The Neversink project seems to offer an antidote to that: titles carefully chosen and offered up with the simple explanation that these books are so good they never should have slipped past or from the public consciousness. All good books transcend the place and time in which they were written: the whole point is to write something specific that becomes universal, after all. So perhaps the best way to transcend the barriers of international literature is to no longer market it as such. A good book is a good book. We need to read more in translation — and we simply need to read more. Maybe dropping all of these labels is a good place to start.





Share this article

More from the Millions

8 Responses to “Confessions of a Literary Jingoist”

  1. Ross G
    at 2:26 pm on May 15, 2012

    I agree with the overall thrust of the article–it’s a shame more foreign works aren’t translated and published into English. That said, I’ve always felt the 3% number was a bit misleading, even disingenuous, because it obscures the fact that America, relative to much of the world, has a very large population of immigrants or ethnic minorities writing in English: Jhumpa Lahiri, Ha Jin, Julie Otsuka, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, Susan Choi, Danticat, Kinkaid, Chang-Rae Lee, Junot Diaz… And that’s just scratching the surface. These authors are hardly, geographically speaking, “inward looking.” One can quite easily read about the rest of the world without having to reach for a translation. That’s not to say to there shouldn’t be more translations–there should–only that looking at the statistic out of context doesn’t do anyone any good.

    I tend to be jingoistic about my literature because, more often than not, I’m disappointed by translations. As Minkel mentioned, the language is often clunky and doesn’t do the original author justice. “Out Stealing Horses” by Per Petterson certainly felt that way. I felt I’d been served a heaping portion of Lite Mayo. Same with Camus’ “The Plague.” And on and on. On the plus side, it gives me an extra incentive to learn a foreign language.

    Enjoyed the article.

  2. Jeremy
    at 4:56 pm on May 15, 2012

    Check out the Dalkey Archive, they translate loads of books every year and these are titles that would NEVER EVER get published here without them.

  3. Heather
    at 9:46 pm on May 15, 2012

    I am a big fan of Europa Editions for this very reason. They’ve recently begun to publish books written in English, but they started out as a publisher of great translated fiction. And I’ve read so many interesting things from this publishing house–The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, A Novel Bookstore. I have yet to read a bad book from Europa.

    Coincidentally, I just picked up Faithful Ruslan by Georgi Vladimov today, published by the Neversink Library.

  4. Book News: Writing Roommates, Reading Cities | celebrities
    at 8:53 am on May 16, 2012

    [...] Elizabeth Minkel on literature, translation, and jingoism. [...]

  5. Tamara Glenny
    at 1:17 pm on May 18, 2012

    Yay Heather! The translator of Faithful Ruslan was Michael Glenny, my father. I got to know the Melville House people, who are wonderful, and when they found out who my dad was they were thrilled at the possibility of being able to republish some of his out-of-print translations. They’re now working on a uniform edition of his translations of Mikhail Bulgakov (his version of The Master and Margarita was the first to be published in the West).

    Thank you for this piece. One of the huge problems for translators is–how to get paid enough to make the effort worthwhile! That’s clearly why so many translations tend to come through university presses etc.

  6. Literary confinement: on restricted reading and the production of factory fiction | literalab
    at 2:40 am on May 22, 2012

    [...] which makes another essay that appeared on the same site a few days earlier by Elizabeth Minkel, Confessions of a Literary Jingoist, all the more [...]

  7. Martin Horan
    at 2:05 pm on May 24, 2012

    Too many books get published as it is, let alone translations.
    As a person who can’t resist buying books and who abhors the very idea of getiing rid of those I’ve read a few times, I wish someone would pass a law against publishing books for at least six years.
    Then I’d have no option not to buy any more and I can put up with that as long as I knew it wouldn’t last forever.
    Many of the books I buy end up infuriating me. I always find faults in the things. I hate it when a book has misprinted words. But what I really loathe is when the writer states something that isn’t factual. That’s because I end up wasting time writing to the misinformed or uninformed (maybe even uniformed) writer to correct him/her. I do have better things to do with my time.
    And not only of the writers of books but of the same of newpaper articles, magazine comments and the like. I do wish those people could be more professional.
    “Of the writing of books there is no end,” wrote the biblical king Solomon. And he wrote it about three thousand years ago. It haven’t changed much. I wonder if he had the same annoyances as I have.

  8. Monday's Margins: Blue Sky Thinking, Literary Lies and Confessions
    at 3:42 pm on December 27, 2012

    [...] “Confessions of a Literary Jingoist” Elizabeth Minkel writes: “You can seek out literature from just about anywhere — and now [...]

Post a Response

Comments with unrelated links will be deleted. If you'd like to reach our readers, consider buying an advertisement instead.

Anonymous and pseudonymous comments that do not add to the conversation will be deleted at our discretion.