Thursday, October 2, 2008

Americans don't like to read translation?

Following yesterday's link to the report about the top Nobel judge's unfavorable comment on American literature and the reactions it stirred up, there is heated discussion on a writer's online forum I frequent. It's understandable that many American writers are angered by Engdahl's words, and they return fire by bombasting the Nobel committee's ignorance, which is quite effective.

Personally, however, I'm more interested in how much truth is contained in this particular statement:

"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining." (AP)

In the discussion on the aforementioned online forum, at least one writer agrees that most American publishers shun translations due to the assumption that Americans don't like to read stories set outside the US, not even stories written in English set elsewhere.

As I noted in a book review earlier, Howard Goldblatt, America's foremost translator of Chinese literature, says in a March interview with China's Southern Weekly that Americans don't read much literary translation. I wonder why. It is a bit difficult for an immigrant like me to comprehend this mentality, because in my youth I read far more literary translations from Europe (France, England, Russia, etc.) and America (such as Hemingway, Mark Twain and Jack London) than Chinese novels. My older sister, who doesn't even have a college education, loves to read translations too. The only literary magazine she subscribes to is Translation Forest (<译林>). We are hardly exceptions among our generation.

I hope some of you will offer insights into this: is it true that Americans are much less interested in literary translation than works written by Americans about America? If so, why? It seems to me "too isolated, too insular" is a bit too simplified, too trite a conclusion.


judy said...

I wonder if Americans who are able to travel and college students who spend a term abroad are more interested in literature in translation. I know when planing my first trip to China I was pleased to find the newly translated "Song of Neverending Sorrow" by Wang Anyi.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Judy, you are probably right, but publishers still don't think there is a market for translations.

By the way, Wang Anyi is one of the best writers in China. I love her writing. I hope you enjoyed her novel.

Linda Austin said...

I plead guilty - I have never read a translation or even come across one in my bookstore/Amazon travels, at least one touted as such. But, I usually only read multicultural books or nonfiction because I like history and culture. I am wondering if translations in general read awkwardly to Americans because of different writing style.

Xujun Eberlein said...

Hi Linda, so you read multicultural books originally written in English? Do you feel there are plenty of original books and the lack of translation isn't a big deal or is somehow retraining in our reading?

Xujun Eberlein said...

restraining, not retraining. Sorry.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps another issue is that it is hard to judge the quality of a translation. In a sense another layer is added to our reading experience. If we have questions, it is hard to know if they relate to the author or to the translator.
With all due respect to Mr Engdahl, Sweden is a small (wonderful) country with (I think) about 8 million native speakers. Clearly, there is a need for translated literature! Also, many Swedes do speak and read English .
I would be interested in knowing about the publishing world in China, and the ratio of Chinese books to translated books.
I thoroughly enjoyed "Song of Neverending Sorrow" I noticed that two translators were involved with this book. I found the backdrop of Chinese history from 1930 to 1970 informative,and I also liked how the author kept her focus on her characters living their lives in tumultuos times.

judy said...

The previous comment was from "Judy"

Xujun Eberlein said...

Judy, you and Linda hinted a good question: in a big country full of immigrants like the US, which publishes plenty of original multicultural books, is it effectively self-sufficient, so that there is little need for a higher number of translated books for general readers? An interesting perspective.

I also googled for data on China's translated books. This is what I found: from 1996 to 2006, 127,500 newly translated titles were published in China. On the other hand, a 2001 statistic has the average number of new publications per year as 89,950. Using these two numbers, a rough estimate for the ratio of translated titles would be 14%. However I did not find any data that would give me a sense of literary translations. Also, I don't know how high this ratio is relative to other countries. Seems pretty high to me.

Mark Anthony Jones said...

I know that many Americans tend to be a little insulated and ignorant of the world outside their borders, but surely the same can be said about most of the world's population. I'm surprised that translated novels don't have a sizeable market in the US though. They do here in Australia, and they certainly do in Europe.

Foreign language films are extremely popular here in Australia and throughout much of Europe too.

Sadly, however, there are very few translated texts included in the high school English curriculum here in New South Wales, which is a real pity. Some of my favourite writers include the likes of China's Yu Hua, and the Japanese writers Abe Kobe, Oe Kenzaburo and Yasunari Kawabata.

What is the situation like in the US in this regard? Do many translated texts find their way into the high school curriclum?

Matthew said...

Most Americans don't read translations because contemporary translated literature makes up about 1% of what is published (I'm not checking facts, but I know it's a low number).

Personally, I don't mind reading long as they're translated well. I'm currently reading Wolf Totem. Also have a friend who doesn't like translated literature because he says it lacks the original intention. That's why he reads a few other languages (something I can't do yet).

As for the Nobel committee, perhaps they should try reading some small press publications.

judy said...

In my opinion, there are many multicultural books written in English, and some translated from other languages in my local bookstore and library. However, (and this may be Mr Engdahl's point), there seems to be a significant lag time between when a book is published and when (if ever) it is translated for an American audience. Therefore, it is hard to keep current woth world literature.

Linda Austin said...

Getting back to this a bit late: I guess I have read a few translations, they just are not labeled as such. I was the other day looking at Amazon reviews of one of Basho's translated "travel and haiku" books and noted the number of complaints about the terrible translation. Granted this is prose and poetry, but like with the Presidential debates: how can you tell what is true to the language?! That bothers me, though maybe it shouldn't for fiction. By the way, I enjoy watching foreign films and reading the English subtitles.