The Value of Translated Work


Go through your bookshelf, or course lists from previous semesters. Out of all of them, which ones are translated? Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Murakami, Márquez, Dumas,and Kafka may be there, collecting dust–I kid. Although, that depends on your reading preferences. These names are familiar to the public, more or less. We’ve read “The Porcelain Doll” in workshops, “The Metamorphosis” deserved enough (as well it should) attention to parody, and I’ve had the privilege of reading The Trial twice now. What’s the value we set on reading from these authors? To read a variety of voices, narratives from around the world, of course. However, these authors, not including Murakami and Márquez, are widely recognized as 2oth and 19th centuries writers. What about authors from today? Why aren’t there more of those on our bookshelves? And, dare I even say it, why hasn’t Amazon suggested any to you in its all-knowing-power-hungry-cog-of perception?

Two weeks ago, there was an article featured on the Palate Cleanser, concerning a rather heated discussion (which you can watch all of here) between writers Jhumpa Lahiri, Jonathan Franzen, Jim Crace, Maaza Mengiste, and Xiaolu Guo at the Jaipur Literature Festival. What was said? Lahiri and Guo both agreed: American literature is overrated. To Franzen’s face, Guo said, “I love your work, Jonathan, but… American literature is massively overrated, and I really hate to read it, and I never read it anyway.” The problem, as Lahiri and Guo explained, is that everyone’s reading preferences, and the way English speaking writers structure their work, very much revolves around the mainstream “American” novel. The examples they gave were narrative driven novels, young-white-male stories praised by the New York Review of Books, and books that are written soley for monetization purposes. I.e. James Patterson, Jackie Collins, Charlene Harris, and those books you find in the airport bookstore. You could even say there’s a plug and coin system to Young Adult literature as well. Not to say these stories aren’t enticing, but when you start to look at the physical makeup of what’s being described here, there is a pattern, no?

Moby Lives! described the conversation asa gangup for dumping on American literature (which they later state the importance of taking this perspective for a second and learning something). And in a way, if you watch the video, it kind of feels that way after awhile. Is it right to take a literary crap on the great minds of Melville, Faulkner, Jennifer Egan, and Kerouac? There is a certain beauty to the vastness that takes up the US. Steinbeck in California, McCarthy in the South West, Flannery O’Connor lived out her sickness in the South, Richard Wright hails from Chicago, the list goes on. Think of the variety of stories that come from each of those individuals. But with this greatness comes a price. Lahiri stated that when she read an Italian newspaper’s top ten bestselling books of 2013, seven of them were originally published in English. Can the same be said for here in the US? Let’s assume, no, most of the best selling books were homegrown. The Guardian reports from recent Vida (an American organisation for women in the literary arts) statistics that in 2012, 22% of the books reviewed in The NYT were written by women. Looking pretty scant on the diversity of titles, eh?

What do you think, writers? As people who put words into good use, are we guilty of following the mainstream mindset? Is there any shame in following that? As a result, Daniel Pritchard, editor of the literary magazine, Critical Flame, as well as Johanna Walsh, have proclaimed 2014 the year of reading women, and authors of color. Indie presses like Black Balloon Publishing, Other Press, Soft Skull Press, and Melville House Books, are just a few that celebrate writers from around the world. And yes, some are even women. So, are you here to join the movement, or is this old news that needs to be washed away?