10.01.2008

Detached Yankee navel-gazers unworthy of Nobel literature prize

Top Nobel jurist says Americans are too isolated and insular to merit top literature award, touches off verbal scuffles with Yankee literati.

I do think Horace Engdahl has a point when he says, "They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining."

How far afield does your reading routinely take you? Glancing at my own bookshelf, I would say 80% to 85% of it is American. And I'm a book-crazy ex-pat.

Last foreign book I read: Say You're One of Them by Uwem Akpan (Nigerian novellas and stories). The book is stunning, marvelous, horrifying. But I automatically snapped back and plowed through three or four American novels in a row without reflecting on my choices -- as if returning home from vacation. That is insular, I think, or at least shows a strong insular tendency.

I think I know why I instinctively reach for the Campbell's soup, though: the rhythms of American speech. That's my mother's milk. When I'm reading a translation, or hell, even something British or Irish, I am aware of the fact throughout. I may like it a great deal -- looking at you, Garcia Marquez, Dickens, Dostoyevsky -- but stylistically it's something else, a relatively exotic work coming out of a different tradition. And my own writing will never sound like it.

I would like to vow to try for a 50/50 split from now on.

3 comments:

Pete said...

I read a fair amount in translation or from abroad. Maybe 40% of my reading. I don't know if that's up to snuff or not, though much of that, admittedly, originates in English.

But I do think that there's an air of self-improvement to the way Americans read foreign lit. Broadening one's horizons, as it were. To some extent that's natural and reasonable. To another it is marketing and fetishization. The broadening itself has been overmarketed and too much appealed to our consciences as consumers, asking us to think of reading abroad as a moral question. That's the sense I get, anyway, reading the back of so many foreign books that make it over. They're appealing to my most moral sense of self and that manipulation bothers me. Reading a work of fiction is almost never amoral act; most usually, it is a diverting one. We shouldn't pretend otherwise. Of course I don't mean that reading and stories don't have moral dimensions. I just don't like when a consumer object seeks too cynically to take advantage of the American consumer's bad habit of conflating purchase with action. Publishers make clear their expectations of us and then we prove them right. It's not a horrible crime--better that rich white ladies discuss Darfur than a lot of other things-- but it is something bothersome in its way.

Of course, if we weren't such a monolingual culture with only a small proportion of readers, publishers wouldn't have to make these choices for us. That goes without saying. The foreign language section at your local bookstore might even be more than 3 shelves.

But it's not always a question of translation, either. When was the last time you read a Canadian author? They have a lot of good writers up there. But the lack of Canadian books available in American bookstores perhaps demonstrates the point: they're not DIFFERENT enough to scratch the American reader's occasional "otherness" bug.

Pete said...

I would also say, in America's defense, that we are probably the most diverse culture in the world. American fiction encompasses not only a range of ethnicities, styles, and experiences, but it has traditionally been the place to read about immigration, at least in the 19th and 20th century, and the cross-cultural currents swirling in all that. In a real way, we don't have to read abroad to read beyond our own experience.

kclou said...

I agree with Pete on the Canadians. Other than Munro and Bellow--if you count Bellow--they don't get a lot of play. There are no shortage of English and Irish authors on my shelf, though, and I think they get reviewed and sold regularly in the usual places. Beyond the British Isles, though, it gets thinner.

A big problem for me is trusting the quality of translation. When you spend as much time using and thinking about language as most of us do, there is something--at least to me--discomfiting about relying on someone else's translation. It's one thing when you read the new Tolstoy or Proust and the translation is part of the story. You know the degree of effort and expertise that went into the process. With new fiction, however, I feel less confident. Anyone who has tried to translate one text into another language knows just how much liberty you have, and how many questions surface. With poetry, it's even harder.

There are some translations, like William Weaver's Italian-English translation of Italo Calvino, that seem so transparent I never pause. It's rare, though, that I feel this way.

As for the rest of this guy's comments, they're thoroughly annoying. If they came from an American, we'd call them provincial and ignorant, so I don't think we need to hold back. What a jerk.