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You Don't Know America

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A bookseller in Yangon, Myanmar. (Photo: huongson/Shutterstock)

You’re Missing Out on Great Literature

• February 11, 2014 • 6:00 AM

A bookseller in Yangon, Myanmar. (Photo: huongson/Shutterstock)

Only three percent of everything published in the U.S. each year is translated from another language—and the majority of that is computer manuals and other technical material. Why don’t Americans read beyond their borders?

When Alice Munro, a Canadian, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, you could almost hear the howl of relief from America’s readers: finally, a winner whose name I know! And, perhaps, whose books I’ve even read!

American authors, journalists, and readers have been criticized for being “too isolated, too insular ” about literature published outside our own borders, as a member of the Nobel committee once put it. Americans “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” When the internationally celebrated author Herta Müller won the Nobel in 2009, Europeans poked fun at the bafflement of Americans with headlines like: “Amerikaanse Mewedia: ‘Müller, Who the f*** Is Müller?’”

Is it true? Are American readers woefully out of touch with international literature? Is our bookish insularity limiting our imaginative lives and suffocating our understanding of the world, while inflating our own sense of self-importance?

Well, yes. But there’s more to the story than that.

For a nation that takes pride in its immigrant history and its multicultural sensibility, the hostility to translated literature is downright bizarre—and not at all serving American readers.

A meager three percent of all books published in America each year are translated from another language. The majority of that is computer manuals, instructions, and other technical material. An even smaller percentage accounts for reprints or new translations of classics—this is where War & Peace and Madame Bovary come in.

That means that contemporary global literature—fiction and poetry written by living authors—is a vanishingly tiny portion of that three percent. It’s likely that American readers will not discover today’s Borges, Calvino, Neruda, or Kafka until long after they are dead, if they even discover them at all.

Things are worse for female authors: only a quarter of this already microscopic number of contemporary literary translations is of works by women. No female authors have ever won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and four out of 22 have won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. For all the seeming diversity of books available to American readers, the scope is actually breathtakingly narrow.*

In “To Be Translated or Not To Be,” the fascinating and well-written 2007 report by PEN International and the Institut Ramon Llull, researchers counted the number of translated titles published in the United States. Over the previous six years, there were only two books from Peru, six from Portugal, five from Argentina, eight from Mexico, and 12 from Spain. This, despite the lively literary culture of each of these places. The dearth of Spanish-language literature translated in America is especially baffling given the high numbers of Spanish-speaking people here, as well as authors living in the U.S. who write in Spanish. French books, incidentally, topped the PEN list, with an average of just 8.7 books published in America each year.

What’s the deal?

Part of the problem is that there are structures that actively discourage literary translation in America. Literary translation is considered so specious, in fact, that the names of translators were long left off book jackets, for fear of scaring off readers.

In a perennial complaint, American universities have historically devalued literary translation as valuable work for tenure-seeking faculty, on the grounds that this work isn’t “original” enough. Many translators published under pen names, for fear that their work would actually count against them in academia. (The American Literary Translators Association has made major inroads in changing the pattern, leading to the first MLA standards on evaluating translation as literary scholarship.)

At the same time, universities and other educational institutions are scrapping foreign language education, particularly in the “smaller” languages, which not only limits the pool of future translators, but also shrinks the number of readers with awareness and enthusiasm for culture beyond our borders. Even in the “bigger” languages, proficiency requirements and enrollment capacity are diminishing.

Outside of a few independent presses, translated literature is on the fringe of what most publishers will take on, for reasons to do with the lack of agility in literary scouting, big publishing models, and so forth. “Our world as dedicated readers depends on the availability of translated works, classical and contemporary, yet in English-speaking nations, major commercial publishers are strangely resistant to publishing them,” writes Edith Grossman in Why Translation Matters. Even if a translated book does get published, it has a greater-than-usual difficulty in generating media coverage.

The lack of publishing support for world literature means that what does get published in America is often subsidized by foreign governments and organizations. The Slovenian Book Agency, for example, funds a literary series dedicated to Slovenian authors like Andrej Blatnik and Boris Pahor. A Swiss arts council supports the publication of, for example, Elisabeth Horem and Max Frisch. It’s no secret that being translated into English not only opens the door to many more readers, but it is also a basic issue of eligibility for many of the world’s most significant literary prizes. Countries with such cultural programs report that it improves their prestige. But a publishing structure that depends upon these foreign agencies means that writers from poorer countries that cannot afford such subsidies tend to be left out of the literary translation market—no matter how extraordinary their book is.

Esther Allen, a translator herself, wrote in the PEN report that “the grave and oft-noted failure of English to take in literary works from other languages via translation becomes … crucial. English’s indifference to translation is not merely a problem for native speakers of English who thus deprive themselves of contact with the non-English-speaking world. It is also a roadblock to global discourse that affects writers in every language, and serves as one more means by which English consolidates its power by imposing itself as the sole mode of globalization.” Notably, according to Allen, the U.S. saw a significant uptick in translations in the 1960s, the era of both rapid global decolonization and “widespread discontent” with our own culture.

For a nation that takes pride in its immigrant history and its multicultural sensibility, the hostility to translated literature is downright bizarre—and not at all serving American readers. This country, after all, is hardly monolingual, and great numbers of us have intense curiosity about the wider world.

The good news is that extraordinary literature in translation is published by a handful of top-of-the-line independent publishers. I’m particularly a fan of the work released by Europa Editions and Open Letter Books. I’m eternally grateful to Europa for publishing Alina Bronsky, the Russian-German author, and Elena Ferrante of Italy, whose novels are among the best I’ve read in years. I want to put them in the hands of everyone I know. Meanwhile, Open Letter’s list includes the classic Catalan writer Mercè Rodoreda; Dubravka Ugresic, the Croatian essayist and fiction writer; and Alejandro Zambra, who is celebrated as the greatest of Chile’s young generation of writers.

Dalkey Archive Press is another strong force in enriching our literature, with its Best European Fiction series and important translations of, for example, Jung Young-Moon of Korea. Archipelago Books publishes beautiful editions of the likes of Karl Ove Knausgaard of Norway and Mircea Cărtărescu of Romania. And the eclectic list of Melville House includes crime fiction from Poland, novellas from Italy, “Arctic adventure” from France, and revolutionary drama from Iran.

In response to the persistent and puzzling absence of literature in translation from mainstream media, other lively outlets emerged to fill the void: World Literature Today, Asymptote, the Quarterly Conversation, and the blogs Three Percent and the Literary Saloon are among the best. The beautiful magazine Words Without Borders just celebrated its 10th anniversary.

It’s uncomfortable to admit, but literary insularity is an American trait. There is much to cry out about in terms of the accessibility of international and translated literature in our country, but readers don’t have to accept that. With a little effort (or none: you can subscribe to Open Letter, and they will just mail all their books to you), American readers can, in fact, meet the world. Don’t do it out of a sense of obligation. Do it because you want to read something wonderful and new.


*UPDATE: This post originally stated that no female authors have ever won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

Anna Clark
Anna Clark is an independent journalist living in Detroit. She writes reported news features, longform non-fiction, and book reviews. She's contributed to The New Republic, The Guardian, The American Prospect, and other publications. She is a political media correspondent for the Columbia Journalism Review as part of its United States Project.

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