The Value of Translated Work

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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?

15 Comments

  1. Virginia Baker Reply to Virginia

    I definitely agree that there is a misrepresentation in the world of literature. We’re all so used to reading the “great” works of those white dead men. We’re taught from such a young age, say 13 or 14, that these are the novels and writings that really matter. I mean, in my entire high school career, I think I read ONE book by a woman (thank you Harper Lee!) and I can’t even think of a minority writer we read anything from. The stress seemed to be on a variation of genre – plays, dystopian novels, historical fiction – and not on the diversity of writers, which is quite ridiculous. Our young, impressionable minds were only exposed to a filtered collection of voices. It took me years to break this way of thinking. It was only until my second year at Columbia that I started to push myself to read works from more diverse authors, because years later, I was still reading mostly male writers. I had to consciously make the decision to start reading more women writers, especially minority writers. But still, most of these writers are American.

    I mean, sure, America has this ego and desire to be the center of the world no matter what, but I think it’s the responsibility of literature to challenge the status quo and represent humanity across all borders, genders, races, classes and ethnicities. The role of literature is to release voices and ideas into the world. The best literature is filled with ideas that constantly challenge what we think and believe, that stretch our minds and make us see something in an entirely different way.

    Recently, I read Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and this book did just that for me. It challenged me. It made me think of my actions and my privilege. It made me think about the role of my writing and the responsibility the writer has to present the hard stuff, that even fiction can confront the realities of living in this world. This book meant a lot to me and I am so thankful that it was published and distributed as it was. But I realize that may have not been the case if Adichie was still living full-time in Nigeria. I mean, what are the odds that the work of a Nigerian living in Nigeria would make it through the giant literary publisher that is Knopf? Probably not very high.

    The publishing industry has a responsibility to provide the public with a wide array of writers, from all over the world. If this is done, then we, as readers, can fulfill our duty and can become more open-minded, cultured individuals in general. I mean, no matter what, it’s not going to affect those writers who are constantly hogging the Bestseller Lists, the writers like Dan Brown and Stephen King who can rewrite the same novel a hundred times and people will still buy the latest copy. Publishing a more diverse arrangement of writers won’t hurt the American writers. If anything, it will create a more global community of literature, which is actually one of the coolest things I can imagine.

  2. Corey Klinzing Reply to Corey

    For years I’ve been hearing that some fantastic science fiction is coming out of Eastern Europe – all those places that used to be part of the Soviet Union. That what they’ve been doing is unprecedented in the American Canon of Science Fiction (peopled by authors like Asimov, Dick, Bradbury, Card and whatnot) because they have a completely different perspective on what the future and space travel might bring. Whether this is true or not, I can’t attest – I’ve never been able to find a translation of the stories. And it’s a shame.

    I think that American Exceptionalism, whether you believe the US is the greatest country on the planet goddammit or not, is something that’s been ingrained in us for so long that it’s difficult for us to think outside that. It’s like having blinders on. But it’s a good thing to criticize the mainstream, to react to it. That’s how we get different forms- that’s how literature evolves.

    Writers especially need to look outside of the accepted American Canon and what is considered mainstream right now – whether you consider it literature or not. If nothing else, they have new perspectives to share, new ways of looking at the world. And that’s always valuable.

  3. Jacob Hall Reply to Jacob

    As an emerging American author, (a WHITE American author at that) this article filled me with a certain kind of dread that I had not yet encountered in my explorations of the literary community. Honestly, I had never really considered the idea that America’s megalomania could infect even literature, though I suppose I should have.

    That being said, I don’t particularly agree that American literature is over-rated. I think that only an extremely small percentage of American authors are well known, and that is indeed a problem. There are so many American voices that, sadly, either never get to be heard or are simply not widely distributed enough to be recognized. Like most industries, literature is certainly male-dominated, white male-dominated, really. So I understand the assertion that American literature can be repetitious.

    However, that should not mean that no facet of American literature has anything to offer the literary world. I think the real problem here isn’t entirely what IS published, but also what isn’t. If there was a greater variety of authors published, authors from different ethnic, economic, gender experiences, the like, the world would be much intrigued. Almost every person in America has an experience unique to them, (almost) and the problem is we just aren’t seeing the spectrum of those experiences.

    Literature should expand one’s mind and open the reader to experiences he or she has never been privy to. It is a shame to think that international authors don’t see us as capable of achieving that.

  4. Taylor Crain Reply to Taylor

    In recent years I have noticed a large and rather significant hole in the echoing, cobweb ridden library of my mind, and while it’s disturbed me I confess I have done little to remedy the situation. I am speaking more specifically to that hole left by the large population of Asian-Pacific writers left unread by me. While at Columbia I have been exposed to a much larger variety of authors; through assigned readings I’ve delved much further into Latin American literature than I would have on my own. My undergraduate education has even caused me to stumble across the occasional female or black American voice, and while this “exposure” may have made me feel at times like I was reading a vast array of authors, a diverse account of the human condition, how diverse is it really?
    The majority of these works were written in English, and when I think of what I have under my belt translation wise, my mind automatically goes to Russia, spends a little time in Germany, and then rounds off its white, European tour in France before it is back to devouring chunks of American English. Recently, reading The Pillowbook of Sei Shōnagon has reminded me of how homogenous my reading experience typically is, and while this lacking, this hole is something I’m aware of, I do not actively think about it day to day. As an English speaking, white American, I know that at present the publishing world caters to me. It’s difficult not to feel lucky for that convenience, but it seems to me as though there is plenty of profit to be made from foreign, translated works, and as Virginia said, the growing influence of a more diverse community of writers hardly detracts from the iconic old white guys already at the top.
    Perhaps it’s because I am not entirely familiar with what goes into publishing a translated work, but I cannot think of an explanation as to why I don’t see translations of modern writers being promoted the same way I see the classics endorsed. Reading The Pillowbook emphasized that aforementioned hole and made me ache for that culture I was never introduced to, but it is ancient, ancient literature. When was the last time that I read (or even saw) the work of an Asian-Pacific author who was alive? And it’s the same for that European tour that on occasion I find myself on—the Tolstoy Kafka Flaubert train ain’t hitting me from the twenty-first century. But from all this observation an unpleasant question emerges: if these modern, foreign works were widely available and accessible to me today, would I take shameless advantage of this opportunity? Or would my reading experience still largely be Americentric? I don’t have a real answer to that question today.

  5. Jacob Anderson Reply to Jacob

    You are special. That is the first and foremost assertion of the American Psyche. This idea is furthered by the white male centric nature of our culture, i.e. if you are white and male you are really special.
    Now this is not to say that American literature is monolithic in its style or content. But the continuing feed back loop of white males, promoting those like themselves, other white males, means that our culture and our literature is robbed of its diversity, and so its greater strength is lacking.
    Don’t get me wrong, these problems have been inherent in every culture since the dawn of humanity, we are simple getting the front row seat to the exploits of American Imperialism. That being said there are great works in the American Canon. The task is separating those works that stand on their own strength and those that are held aloft by the precepts of culture.
    The issue of American literature being over rated is less of a problem with the content of American works, and more of one with American reactions to foreign authors and works. Or more pointedly our complete lack of reaction to them. We are so intent on our own greatness and specialness that we have no time for the ideas of others.
    Even less so if those ideas come from a non-white male source. But there is a sublet difference between demeaning those that you disagree with, and ignoring them completely. American literary culture doesn’t hold itself superior to the world’s literature at large, it simple denies that anything other then American literature exists at all.

  6. Anne-Marie Farrell Reply to Anne-Marie

    It wasn’t until I came to Columbia that I realized what I was reading, or –more tellingly- not reading. I don’t think I gave it much thought at all, even in high school when I knew I wanted to go to college for writing.
    I used to be so caught up in trying to read the classics, the great (white male) writers. I don’t think I was aware that these stories were affecting the way I saw the world. I don’t know if I even realized that I wasn’t reading enough stories by women.
    I watched a Ted Talk: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story (which is brilliant and I recommend it to everyone, if you haven’t seen it). It really opened my eyes; I’ve been naïve about what I’ve been reading, I know that I am –at least a little bit- guilty of following the mainstream.. “The problem with stereotypes isn’t that they aren’t true,” she says. “But that they are incomplete. They make one story become the whole story”. I think that, right there, is the problem. International writers are only seeing the stories of white men, not of the hundreds of thousands of other people that have stories, too.

  7. Alyssa Fuerholzer Reply to Alyssa

    As a kid I’d always loved to read, which was why I thought English would be my favorite subject in school. When I got to high school I was given a long list of classic novels and I had this great idea that I would read every single one of them. But I abandoned the pursuit when I realized that, just like the stuff we were reading in my classes, it was not a very inclusive list. It quickly became apparent that most of these classic novels were written by white male authors. Some of them I liked, but I had a really difficult time connecting to most of them. So, based on my own experience, I do agree that some American literature is overrated. I feel like white males were the ones to compile that list of classics, because women and writers of color weren’t represented.
    However, I still think it’s a little bit unfair and dismissive to say that all American literature is overrated. The classics are classics for a reason. But I think there are other novels that are being overlooked just because they don’t fit in with mainstream American literature, and that’s the real problem. We need to start changing the definition of mainstream American literature so that it’s not so exclusive. I think it’s our job as writers to expose ourselves to different kinds of writing and to help expose other readers to more diverse literature. It is a shame, though, that more translated books from other countries and cultures aren’t available to us. I’m not really sure what the answer is.

  8. Jennifer Bostrom Reply to Jennifer

    I was fortunate enough in my schooling to be exposed to a myriad of writers throughout my high school years. Yes, a majority of them were white men but I was also able to read the likes of Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, Mary Shelley, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austin, Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya, Richard Right, just to name a few. But, as I said, I was fortunate. I grew up in a neighborhood and was enrolled in a schooling system whose teachers cared about our exposure to literature and all it could offer.

    As an aspiring writer I think the responsibility is mine to take; if I want to be exposed to a greater breadth of literature it’s my prerogative. Unfortunately there are many people who choose not to do the same, but that’s their choice. Writers like James Patterson, Jackie Collins, Charlene Harris, appeal to the reader who doesn’t want to explore the art and world of literature. Easily found in an airport terminal their books shouldn’t require more attention than the duration of your flight serving as the in flight entertainment. Those books are easy to access and easy to read but I think sometimes we forget that reading is a hobby and every hobby has its great enthusiasts, its followers, and those who put little stock into the activity beyond an easy, fast read. Also to consider, as much as we young aspiring writers want to devalue Patterson, Collins, and Harris in the face of the greats like Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, there is merit in a novel whose purpose is to be an easy read at the end of a day when you want to shut off your mind and breeze through something simple.

    I don’t think there’s any shame in following the mainstream movement as a reader, trends become mainstream because we like them. I think every writer should aspire for better, if they are only looking for monetary success they’re writing for the wrong reasons. Yes, as a writer I want to write a “better” class of novel than a bodice ripper that takes a couple hours to plow through, I don’t want to write to become the next Patterson, turning out book after book that does nothing to capture the beauty beyond a plot line.

    I agree with Jacob Hall that there’s a problem with what gets distributed. I think it’s possible that bigger, well known publisher’s pander to the market and publish what sells big as opposed to publishing little known voices that independent publishing houses pick up.

  9. Melissa Huedem Reply to Melissa

    It wasn’t until I watched part of the discussion between Xiaolu Guo, Jonthan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, and co. that I realized that there is an “American novel.” That sounds silly to say, but it never really struck me that there was a different format for telling stories in other countries. This is just a testament to the fact that I need to read more and expose myself to a world of writing. Also shows that I am indeed American, and did not even think of how literature in other countries would be different. As Jhumpa Lahiri said, “The power is in the hands of the reader.” I need to be actively searching for new books to read from a wide variety of countries.

    Of course there can always be problems with the translation. Sure, the work will be translated in English but I always wonder if the impact of the words were different in its original language. Last semester in my Story and Journal class we read The Stranger by Camus. Throughout the reading I pondered whether the wording or phrases would have moved me in a different way or made me feel otherwise. Again quoting Lahiri, “There is no universal language. Language defines or restricts us.” This is certainly true in our reading.

    I was a film student before I went into creative writing. In our Moving Image Art classes we watched a lot of foreign films as well as American ones. There is a vast difference between, say, Breathless (A bout de soufflé) and Rebel Without a Cause. Both were made in the late 50s-early 60s, yet there is a style about them where you can tell that one is French and the other is American. French films tend to be more about imagery and deep introspection. American films are more narrative and character driven. Because The Stranger is the only French work I can recall reading, I can say that this style can also be seen in literature (but I say this with very little confidence considering I have very little knowledge to go off of).

    Of course I want to see diversity in literature. I am a woman AND a minority. I’ve always wanted to see someone like me represented in stories. The thing is though I don’t want that to be the selling point or the reason people are reading my writing. Of course I want to create characters that represent my upbringing, my families’ heritage, my past, and etc., but if I’m only being recognized for the fact that I’m an Asian-American woman writer than that’s not good enough. That’s not good at all. I want that to not play a huge role in the way people see my work. I want people to judge the work based on the work. I don’t want a label, brand, or attention as a minority and woman in order to fill a void in the ethnic category of literature. But I guess this is something I just have to accept because every facet of business in America is predominantly White Male. If you are anything but then you will be labeled and put into a separate category.

    If we are going to seek out writers from around the world, let it be because we want a change in perspective, a new way of storytelling, and a world unknown to us. We shouldn’t go out looking for diversity in order to check it off our list or to say that, “We are diverse readers now.” Go out celebrating writers from around the world because of their stories and their ways of telling it. From th

  10. Hugo César García Reply to Hugo

    I find myself as guilty as others for circling around the same authors. Perhaps it’s because I’ve only begun to read on a more regular basis in the past couple of years, but I do find myself just reading the works of the same writers. And It’s because of how comfortable I’m able to feel under their grasp.

    I don’t know enough about the literary market to discuss American literature, but I am in agreement that people should attempt their best to gain knowledge about our countries and their history. And maybe one way of doing that is by reading outside your comfort zone and trying to read a book from a new or obscure author.

    After reading this, I realized how little I know about literature in general, but I applied the sentiment towards the film industry and I came away understanding about how both mediums have similar problems in regards to their consumers. I have the opposite relationship with cinema, in that I have a much more widespread approach it (year, country, language, etc). So I need to do a better job at trying to read much more variedly, not just in regards to the origin of the book, but also seeking out the work of writers that don’t have the spotlight on them just yet.

  11. Monica Chapman Reply to Monica

    I think we can safely say we have been guilty of only reading the classics and not branching out to really take a look at other authors and their works. I know I have been guilty of it. It didn’t hit me until I received a book from an African born author for my birthday about two years back (I can’t remember the name of it at the moment). Yet I do recall the moment where I started looking for stories outside of American Authors.
    We have this tendency to stick to what we know and what we are taught. If we read The Great Gatsby, some people would stay with FitzGerald and read more of his work which is great, however, seeing what is on the other side of the pond is a great way to start expanding your horizons and start breaking away from what is more comfortable to you. Isn’t one of the lessons we learn as writers is to break outside your comfort zone so that you can see what new material you can produce or in this case, what new materials you can learn from?
    Basically there shouldn’t be any shame when you read “mainstream” stories and authors. They are the stories that have helped build the way we tell stories now. However, that doesn’t give one the chance not to explore more than the mainstream stories. Like I said before, I think looking outside of American stories can help us with how we view stories as a whole. We need to start just jumping into a new type of mind set however we should ignore the old.

  12. Mahjabeen Syed Reply to Mahjabeen

    I can’t seem to recall ever really thinking about whether I consider American literature to be overrated or not. I’ve never really had to but it is a great topic of discussion especially among modern day writers who are trying to, “make it,” as it were.

    There are two question I often find myself asking; how can one hope to have an individual voice consisting of individual thoughts and writing styles when we are constantly being compared to others? And how can one write something new and different when we are compared to well-known author’s standards which, essentially make us the same?

    There are greats like Kafka and Melville collecting significant amounts of dust on my bookshelf. In fact, they are probably collecting the most dust because they are at the top of the pile of stacked books because my bookshelf has run out of space and since they were most recently read, they literally bite the dust.

    Now to the matter at hand, is American Literature overrated? Personally, I think that American authors are more overrated than the literature. Most of the authors that are highly discussed and read are household names that many of us have grown up around. And to be quite frank, most of them are also dead. J.D. Salinger, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harper Lee, Hemingway, etc… These authors are put on a pedestal for some amazing work and for changing writing whether it be through craft or content. But isn’t it time to let go, just a tad bit? To let writers know that hey, you don’t need to use the iceberg principle for your stories or place flowery adjectives to describe something to make it unique. That it’s okay to write your stories no matter how unconventional they may seem as long as you hone your craft.

    Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of fantastic living authors like Lahiri, John Green, and Coelho who take their writing in different directions and with that said, I think that American literature is pretty diverse content wise even if there isn’t much diversity in the race of the authors. And you could argue that in present time, it seems that for the past four years or so, the majority of Americans have been in a zombie, vampire, werewolf trance but I don’t think that defines American literature or Americans in general.

    I’m not the type of person that falls for an author then reads every book they have ever written. I grab what catces my attention and yes, like a pregnancy test, 99.9% of them were originally written in English but they are of all different genres, written by both veteran and emerging writers with their own wow factor. Sure, some fall short, but definitely not all. I think that American literature has actually blossomed so that when you walk into a bookstore, no matter the size of it, you can be sure to find at least one book that you would enjoy on your own merits. I don’t think the issue is American literature, it is the perception that people have of it because of the books that we deem worthy to be taught in hundreds of school across the country. Sure they’re classics, revolutionary for their time, and brimming with non-cliche metaphors. Maybe it’s time for a new standard of American literature.

  13. Lauren Smith Reply to Lauren

    Probably the majority of my books are English that started off in English. But I never really paid too much attention to it. Usually I would notice if a book threw me off with a word or two and then I’d realize that the book had originated in Australia. Unless a place is otherwise stated or obviously not here I assume it’s set in america. Which makes me wonder if that’s how people read in other countries, if they too don’t pay attention to where a story originated from.

    I also read a good portion of comics that originate from other countries, one of the things I’ve noticed or heard a lot of with comics that have been translated or if I’m talking to someone who has read a book in it’s original language and then is reading the translated version with me, is that the humor and the jokes don’t get translated properly. Sayings also don’t translate well. With translations when I’m aware of them, I always wonder if there are things I’m not understanding because the translator didn’t use the best choice or the translator cut out parts. As a reader who is only fluent in English I’m at the mercy to trust translators to do their very best, but also at the knowledge that somethings just don’t translate well. In which case, would it be the same vice versa? Would someone who doesn’t read English and is trying to read a translated version miss out on the parts that make a book so well loved? Though maybe now, a well loved current release might be at the whims of the media and by current fads. If those are the books that people on an international level are occasionally sticking their noses up at, I can understand that. But we also have to keep in mind that the amount of things that gets translated depends on popularity as well. I don’t know if these people are reading american novels in English or in their own languages and I’d rather not assume.

    I do think it’s a bit disheartening that english books were so greatly disliked, but it is a mostly white male publishing world. But other things are being published too beyond the realm of a bestseller structure and I don’t know if they’ve looked and found those gems hidden underneath the popular flavor of the week or the bestselling airpot novel. The thing is, there are millions of books, so many that no one can read them all in their lifetime, and so I think if someone doesn’t want to read american novels that’s okay, but that person isn’t the one who speaks for everyone in their country or even in that section of the literary world. English speaking countries are somewhat vast, so it makes sense that they produce a lot of novels, but I’m sure other countries produce a lot as well, we probably just don’t hear about it because we’re a bit notorious for paying more attention to ourselves then the world at large.

  14. Zack Reiter Reply to Zack

    I am aware up front that this is going to make me seem like a pessimistic naysayer, but unfortunately I don’t think there is a viable solution to the problem. Literature, just like film and television and music, is compromised immediately by monetizing it.
    Though it is ridiculous to make a blanket statement that American literature is overrated, if your judgments are based solely on mainstream literature, you are probably right. This country produces the highest quality films in the world, but if only the largest movies reach different countries, than wouldn’t it be fair to call American cinema overrated based on Transformers 3 and Iron Man 3?

    But more than that, I am not sure what the point is of calling anything overrated. It is purely a matter of opinion, and I think they are using the word overrated as though the most popular things are also the highest rated, when in reality, usually the opposite is true. It is not as though the “book factory” authors like James Patterson are winning the National Book award every year.

    Believe me, I would like to see books published that come from every corner of the world, but mainstream far-reaching publishers are (for the most part) in the business of making money before anything else. I would buy great new translated works, but is the market really large enough to sustain a profitable business? I see people saying that publishers have a responsibility to widen the scope of literature we read, but I strongly doubt most major publishers feel that sense of responsibility. They have a business, and though it’s awful, Twilight will always outsell Junot Diaz.

    So I suppose that means the responsibility falls upon the reader. We don’t have the immediate availability of every book from every country translated, but if we spent every second of the rest of our lives reading great novels that have been translated, novels that challenge us and our American mindset, there would still be thousands of great books that we never got to finish.

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