Tuesday, March 1, 2011

All these foreign treasures and pleasures

The other day on Alas, A Blog, I learned that only three percent (3%) of the books published in the United States are translated from other languages.
This surprised and saddened me, and I did a quick scan of my backpack and my memory to see what I was reading at the moment that was a translation, and what foreign-language to English books had proved popular in the last few months on NPR and literary-oriented blogs I keep up with.
From my backpack, there's a translation of the Bhagavad Gita (Original language: Sanskrit) An omnibus of the plays of Ivan Turgenev (Original language: Russian) and three books, namely, Bosnian Chronicles, The Vizier's Elephant, and The Bridge on the Drina, by Ivo Andric (Original language: Serbo-Croat) as well as two books written in English, one of which, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, sometimes employs anachronistic English, ranging from a Jane Austen styled "shew" instead of "show", to full on vernacular dialects of British English long forgotten or evolved.
From various book blogs and NPR, I've accumulated quite the heavy load of books translated from English. A series on Scandinavian literature that isn't crime or mystery-heavy as the Millennium Trilogy led me to We, The Drowned (Original language: Danish) Popular Music from Vittula (Original language: Swedish) and Quicksand (Original language: Danish) Reading a blog by a Hispanic Studies academic kindled my interest in Fuenteovejuna (Original language: Spanish) and of course, everyone in the literary world is abuzz waiting for the English translation of Haruki Murakami's newest novel (Original language: Japanese)
And yet this constitutes, apparently, very little of what gets published in America. I shudder to think about what the statistics are regarding English translation literature that is widely read in America. Though if you have a stat of it, please share.
I have a decided advantage over many people in the United States when it comes to reading books that come from non-English speaking places: My background in International studies and Asian studies means that I'm more comfortable navigating unfamiliar cultural norms and styles than others may be, and have to rely less on footnotes and special annotations to explain a particular action, phrase, or allusion. This speeds up the reading process for me, and when I do have to stop to look up something or clarify a particular unfamiliar moment, I'm not thrown off from the reading experience.
Several other advantages I have which probably contributes to me reading more translated literature than average is my bilingualism (I am also slowly hoping to obtain fluency in Russian, French, and Swedish) which, believe it or not, contributes more, not less, to me reading translated works. Sure, I love reading poems in the original Japanese. But I also love comparing translations and seeing which ones come out on top. It also allows me to be more discerning about which translations I pick for people who don't speak Japanese, and can usually recommend one based not only on quality, but on their personal preferences. It also helps that I have many friends from different countries who are eager to share the best of their country's literary output with me. That is how I picked up Zorba the Greek and The Last Temptation of Christ (Original language: Greek) and as well as those Andric books listed above.
All of this aside though, I have something to tell those who don't typically read translated literature: You're missing out, and you don't have to start big.
It's been proven with the marketing of the Millennium Trilogy that it's not impossible to make a book set in a foreign land translated into English desirable and hotly read in America. You don't have to start out big though. If you've never really paid attention to foreign literature, start with something fun and accessible in a genre you like. If you have children, read "The Little Prince" and "Momotaro Peach Boy" to them. If you're nervous about the cultural differences, start off with an author like Salman Rushdie or Kazuo Ishiguro, who write in English but have a different cultural perspective to offer. Work your way up to works in a genre you love, such as crime thrillers (I know, I'll stop now!) or romance, or adventure. Try out a memoir.
Either way, there's little that can be done by a single reader to change the trend of 3%. But there's a lot that can be done to enrich you personally by defying this trend and showing that you, a reader, take an interest in books translated into English.


  1. I'm here from Shakesville, and just wanted to say awesome post. I read far too little translated fiction, but I so enjoy it when I do (as well as much of the French- and English-language writing from cultures I don't know well.)

    So thanks for the reminder, too:)

    ~Libractivist (Blogger isn't letting me use that identity here.)

  2. Thanks, Libractivist! I'm glad it reaches people. I can think of nothing more essential to the character and integrity of the American reader than reminding them of fiction that lays beyond our borders.

  3. Hi. I linked over here from Shakesville as well. Great post. There is definitely a tendency in the U.S. to focus on English-only books and I'm not surprised that the percentage of translated books among those published is so low.

    I do read translated literature but I have always had an interest in other cultures and the literature, music and art of those cultures, so I have always specifically sought those books out (and thanks to the Internet I was able to obtain them fairly easily, but often from booksellers in the U.K. rather than the U.S.). That said, I've read a lot of literature from specific countries/languages yet have neglected to explore so many others. So, in addition to a wonderful write-up, thank you for so many of your suggestions. My "To Read" list keeps getting longer.

    And count me among those who can't wait to read Haruki Murakami's latest. :)

  4. Hooray for Haruki! :D
    And thank you, lightbird, for reading and commenting. I should have mentioned how, in the age of the internet, it's easier to obtain translated works that don't get promoted in the U.S, and it's also easier to make friends from around the world who wish to share their literary heritage with you.
    My "To Read" list right now is longer than my Netflix queue, and I'm a walking IMDB. Always glad to add onto someone else's.

  5. Finding translated (from languages other than English) SF/fantasy, is quite difficult.

  6. Mellanvärld: Try Stanislaw Lem. One of the most famous Sci Fi writers, and he's Polish.

  7. This is an interesting point you bring up. Leaving foreign languages aside, I wonder how many Americans read English books written by authors from other English speaking countries.