Tuesday, June 28, 2005

U.S. has a serious trade deficit. . .in literary translations

The June 2005 issue of Gale's Literature Community News has a piece written by Chris Jackson on the deficit in translated works. The essence of the article is this: the U.S. has a severe shortage of works from other nations translated into English. In the meantime, the world does a good amount of translating works from English into various languages. The opening statistic in the article provides a good wake-up call:

50% of all books published in translation are translated from English. Only 6% of all translated books are translated from another language into English. What does this mean? For one, it means that the works of several Nobel Prize-winning authors still aren't available at your local bookstore. For another, it means there's "a one-way mirror between America and the rest of the world. They get to see what we're doing, but we don't get to see what they're doing," according to Hyperion editor-in-chief Will Schwalbe.

Personally, I have always known that a lot of the cool and fun stuff to read is written overseas in various languages. No offense to United States writers, there are some excellent ones, but overall, I love to explore stuff from around the world, which is often better and just more imaginative. As I said, the United States has produced some fine writers like Hemingway and more recently Toni Morrison, but overall the U.S. production, at least recently, does not seem to have as much diversity and daring. I am speaking literary fiction; popular fiction is a whole other ballgame, so to speak, and I read my fair share of the popular too. But in terms of literary fiction, offer me someone like John Updike, and I just think "blah." Offer me Isabel Allende, Jose Saramago, Salman Rushdie, Chinua Achebe, and others from around the world, and I am thinking "oh yea." I am sure readers would love to suggest their own American favorites. As I said, there are excellent writers, but I think they are rare.

My only regret at this point is that I am not fluent in at least two or three more languages so I could read more. I am fluent in Spanish, and I read anything originally in Spanish that way. Works from Portuguese writers, like Saramago, I pick up in a Spanish translation. This is a bias on my part, but since they are both Romance languages, I think a Spanish translation will likely be closer to the original. I took two years of French as an undergraduate, and I actually managed to pick it up quite well (being a Romance language made it easier for me). Sadly, lack of practice and time means I have lost a lot of that knowledge. Who knows? Maybe some day I will get the guts to pick it up again so I can read Victor Hugo as well as contemporary French writers, not to say those of other Francophone nations. Overall, the world offers a diverse set of literary genres and forms. It seems to me we are missing an awful lot here in the States. In the meantime, I pick up any works translated into English (or Spanish) I can get my hands on.

In addition, as Arts and Humanities Librarian at my library, I select books on Foreign Languages (pretty much anything other than English; we have an English selector). So, I pick up works written in Foreign Languages (not many, since our programs are pretty small). I also get to pick translations into English from around the world. Recently, I have selected anthologies of Arab women's writing, writers from the Amazon region (many of which write in native languages), some Eastern European, etc. I have to be very selective, in part because I know the interest may be low. But I do it in the belief that I need to broaden the horizons of my patrons as well as I need to build a more diverse collection.

Here is another good quote from the article:

A study by the National Endowment of the Arts found that in 1999, only 300 of the 10,000 works of poetry and fiction published in the U.S. that year were translations from any language. But get this: According to Esther Allen, head of PEN American Center's translation committee, in 2002 more than 330 books were translated into Arabic. Turns out those supposedly hostile-to-the-West countries are doing a better job of incorporating international literature into their culture than English-speaking countries.

I hate to say this, but this country has a serious lack of understanding when it comes to the rest of the world. Back in April, I wrote a post about how Social Studies is losing out to Mathematics and Sciences. I am not saying that we should teach less Math and Science, but we should also be teaching more Social Studies, including Geography. The post has a link to the National Geographic Global Literacy Survey, which highlights how dismal such knowledge is here. This article about translated literature just makes me think of that further. I find it very interesting that at a time when the U.S. is at war in the Middle East that they over there are translating and reading more works from here than viceversa (ok, so the number is close, but it is more). Hostile as they may be it seems, that if nothing else, they adhere to that old maxim about knowing the ways of the enemy. I would like to think that there is some interest besides "understanding the enemy." And literature can be very revealing about a particular society. It can open all sorts of doors to better understanding. On a side note, I do wonder how much of this flux of works into Arabic from English is affected by the fact many regimes in the Middle East are repressive when it comes to the freedom to read, and readers get their copies of English stuff underground (or have to seek it out more aggressively. Here, we just go to Borders or online to buy it, but this is a whole other topic). Personally, I think there is never enough literature to read and discover. So, I would urge publishers and translators to keep making works accessible to readers around the world. I, for one, will be reading.

Update note (6/30/05): The Guardian has published an article listing ten overseas writers that we should be reading. The article was prompted by the awarding of the International Man Booker Prize to Albanian novelist Ismail Kadare (who? Yea, I know, they actually typed the question on the article, and I had the same reaction). As for the list of ten, I only knew of one. So, it looks like I have some reading to do.

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