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Lost and found in translation: Why Americans don’t need foreign books

July 7, 2010

Olufemi Terry

Once again Americans are taken to task, this time in The New York Review of Books, for not reading translations of foreign books, at more or less the same time an unknown African writer, Olufemi Terry, wins one of the continent’s major literary prizes. I feel so guilty.

Guilty, guilty, guilty! Yes, guilty for reading China Mieville, Stephen King and Brando Skyhorse instead of some deserving and vaguely medicinal work originating in Eastern Europe or South Asia. Hey! Skyhorse is Mexican-American — don’t I at least get diversity points?

I mean, I’m a professional reader, a literary journalist of long standing, and yet when I think of African writers, um, lessee — you want me to name some? Okay…uh…Doris Lessing! Izak Dinesen! Nadine Gordimer! J.M. Coetzee! Oh, you meant, like, black African writers? Wole Soyinka — didn’t he win the Nobel? And Chinua Achebe, likewise?

Okay, the sad fact is that while I’ve often read writers in translation to great profit and pleasure (let me trot out a few I’ve enjoyed: Alberto Moravia, Natalia Ginzburg, Mario Vargas Llosa, Stephane Audeguy, J.K. Rowling), I remain woefully innocent of real familiarity with world literature.

Yet Tim Parks, in his New York Review piece, “America First?”, comes to some surprising conclusions — actually, he isn’t taking us to task at all, but describing a brave new world of literature. A British novelist and critic who has long lived in Italy, he’s well positioned for the job.

In reviewing several books, including Aleksander Hemon’s anthology Best European Fiction 2010 and Why Translation Matters, by Edith Grossman, Parks take notice of the increasing similarity of literature, no matter where it originates.

“It is as if literary fiction didn’t so much reflect other cultures, obliging us to immerse ourselves in the exotic, but rather brought back news of shortcomings and injustices to an international community that could be relied upon to sympathize. These writers seem more like excellent foreign correspondents than foreigners. Across the globe, the literary frame of mind is growing more homogeneous.”

In this context, “homogeneous” is a bit of a dirty word, don’t you think, a poke in the eye of Europeans and Third Worlders who like to look down on Americans as boobs and isolationists?

What’s more, Parks notes (with glee, unless I’m mistaken) that while translation accounts for 50 percent of the fiction in countries like Germany, France and Italy, it’s almost all American fiction that’s being translated.

“American authors take up considerable space in the literary pages of Europe’s newspapers not, or not only, because they are good, but because they are American, they talk about America.”

So — if the world finds us so fascinating, then maybe the lint in my belly button is as important as I thought….?

No, wait, that way lies madness. For one thing, excellent foreign correspondents bringing news from faraway places can be not only instructive but amazingly enjoyable.

And maybe it’s an indication of how much less work in translation I’ve read in comparison to Parks, but I frequently find a bracing alien-ness in the foreign novels and stories I read, one that not only enlarges my sense of the world, but challenges and enlarges my understanding and appreciation for the nation and culture of my birth and breeding.

I’m quite certain Olufemi Terry would be satisfied to gain the status of an excellent foreign correspondent. His short story “Stickfighting Days,” about the misadventures of a gang of boys sniffing glue and fighting in a dump, has been awarded the Caine Prize for African writing, according to the Guardian.

Terry says he hopes the prize, which comes with £10,000, helps him find a publisher for his novel, The Sum of All Loses, which he’s about to finish. His chances seem good: Previous winners of the so-called “African Booker,” including Brian Chikwava, Leila Aboulela and Helon Habila, have been taken up by U.K. publishers.

A native of Sierra Leone who has lived in Nigeria, Britain, the Ivory Coast, New York, Somalia, Uganda and now South Africa, Terry has a surprising take on his literary mission — it isn’t focused so much on Africa.

“Whether it’s journalism or fiction there is too much emphasis put on issues such as poverty or disease, and I feel the label ‘African writing’ exacerbates that particular tendency,” he says. “I would like to see more of a shift away from writing about Africa set on the continent, and more exploration of the issues of the diaspora.”

Oh, and if you think I was joking, or made a mistake when I listed J.K. Rowling among the authors I’ve read in translation, think again. Every single one of the Harry Potter books has been translated from the original U.K. English into a somewhat dumbed down American English for us isolationist boobs.

Hey, that’s how little they think of our intellectual capabilities. So let’s all go out and buy a novel in translation, prove ’em wrong! USA! USA! USA!

14 Comments leave one →
  1. July 7, 2010 1:20 pm

    Wonderful that Tim Parks, and his notion of international writers as “foreign correspondents.” I could not agree more and thank you for your impassioned affirmation! Strange bird that I am, Chauncey, I’m indebted to literature in translation for the bulk of my eduction, really: German, French and Russian. Somewhat humiliating to admit this, but I even read my own literature (Arabic)
    in translation (English).

    Cheers to you, Terry, Parks, and those intrepid translators the world over for collapsing false distances of Place and Time.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 7, 2010 4:14 pm

      Parks’ piece in the NYRB is truly excellent and wide ranging. He’s a distinguished translator himself, as well as a novelist, so he’s obviously not arguing against Americans reading translations — just easy and predictable reasons for why we should.

      I’m a bit puzzled, though, as to they you would read Arabic writers in English…?

      • July 7, 2010 4:58 pm

        Yes, I’ve been a fan of Parks’ for the past decade or so. “A Good European,” as Nietzsche would say.

        Going to American schools since I was a child, meant I never studied Arabic (written) even though I spoke it at home, of course. And, when it was time to take a foreign language, I chose French, since Arabic wasn’t ‘foreign’… As a result, I’ve always been out of place there, and here.

  2. rachel permalink
    July 7, 2010 2:59 pm

    Chauncey Mabe, you’re a nut!

    I don’t know, it seems to me that I have a lot of books in translation. And I read a lot of books not in translation. I like to read a lot in general and my tastes take me to all sorts of books from all sorts of places. Although I can only read books made available to me in English. And sometimes I get lost in wondering in what ways a translated book would feel and be different if I read it in its native tongue.

    Thanks for an interesting blog Chauncey Mabe.

  3. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 7, 2010 4:17 pm

    USA! USA! USA–what? Oh, you again. I can’t recommend Parks’ essay in the NYRB highly enough. He goes on to discuss, bearding Edith Grossman in her own den, exactly what translation is, and makes clearer than I’ve ever seen before that all translation is a matter of rewriting — the words, the syntax, the style (pretty much everything) belong more to the translator than the original author…

    • rachel permalink
      July 8, 2010 9:22 am

      Pretty much everything? What about the story, the guts of it?

      And doesn’t that mean that a good translator would really make the efforts and has the talent to keep it as close to the feel of the original?

      And since we are reading in translation and don’t know French, or Russian, or Arabic we will never really know whether or not it’s a good translation. It’s impossible for us to judge, and so we just have to take the word of those for who it is possible to judge.

      • July 8, 2010 9:53 am

        Yes and no, Rachel. A good translator needn’t be faithful to the letter, because there is a spirit that moves between them. In a sense, all writing is translating (from thoughts, feelings into words). A good translator then, irrespective of their stylistic merits, is like a good biographer in that they place their skill and imagination in the service of another. You know they have succeeded if you feel they have summoned the spirit of the original author, and you better know their intentions or work as a result.

        There is a secret affinity, I think, between translators & writers/work (that chooses them unconsciously?)

  4. Connie permalink
    July 7, 2010 6:13 pm

    STOP PRESSURING ME! I have so much to read as it is!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      July 7, 2010 6:20 pm

      What? They find a fourth Stieg Larsson book?

      • Kris Montee permalink
        July 8, 2010 10:39 am

        Yes, they did. A partial manuscript at least. Lord help us.

  5. Chauncey Mabe permalink*
    July 8, 2010 10:55 am

    Yeah, I heard about that, but I’ve been pretending with all my might that I didn’t. Maybe the title when it’s published (and it WILL be published, you can make book on it), will be “The Girl Who…Uh….”

  6. July 9, 2010 2:09 pm

    “Across the globe, the literary frame of mind is growing more homogeneous.”

    I’m not entirely certain i agree. even when a foreign writer writes a novel set in the U.S i feel perceptions will emerge that reflect that foreignness. interesting blog tho.


  7. October 10, 2010 6:58 pm

    Unfortunately “dumbing down” for the American market has been occurring for many years. In a PG Wodehouse story written eons ago, Bertie Wooster unintentionally quotes a line from the poet Shelley. His female companion exclaims, “You know your Shelley” to which Bertie replies, “Oh am I?”
    This little gem was completely eliminated in the American translation.


  1. Metaglossia

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