My Two Cents – Why Americans Read So Few Translations

At the New York Review of Books, British novelist Tim Parks tackles four books, the first two of which repeat the time-worn complaint that Americans are too self-involved and isolationist, and this manifests itself in the paucity of books in the States translated from other languages.

In the interest of full disclosure, I love languages, and have since I was a kid. I worked as a translator for a decade, in two non-English languages. I’m no linguistic prude.*

HOWEVER, the incessant indictment of American culture as xenophobic or isolationist on the allegation that we fail to spend as much time on foreign art and literature as other countries is little more than a crass and irrational political dogma, not so much a critical observation as just a knee-jerk sentiment indulged by faux elite snobs.

The two books in question from Parks’ article are The Best European Fiction 2010, edited by Bosnian-American author Aleksander Hemon, and Why Translation Matters, by American translator Edith Grossman.  As Parks explains:

Only 3 to 5 percent of books published in the US are translations, we are told. Hemon sees this as another manifestation of “culturally catastrophic American isolationism”; Grossman feels that the resulting incomprehension of foreign cultures has dangerous implications for world peace. Thus both these publications that invite us to experience other cultures do so within the frame of a polemic at home.

Of course, looking down the nose at America is the outside world’s most popular sport—association football running a close second—and has been so ever since the Tories mistakenly thought they could shame us into submission with a little tune called “Yankee Doodle.”  (We booted them out and adopted the song.)

But, this mis-Americanism is so popular in fact that—as with association football—its rules and maneuvers are enthusiastically learned by many Americans themselves, like Grossman, or imported to America by immigrants like Hemon.

But, let’s think about it for a moment, specifically in the context of Hemon and Grossman’s specific complaint, which is about foreign translations in America.  The vast majority of America’s 310 million people (96 percent) speak English, which means we have a lot to say to each other without translation.  And, with 510 million speakers worldwide, English is surpassed in total speakers only by Mandarin Chinese. So, we have a lot to listen to from the world, again without translation.

So, wouldn’t it be more of a cultural pathology if Americans read translated books at the same rate as Europeans, considering that the closest thing to a common language in the EU is spoken by only 51 percent of the population (it’s also English, by the way), and most of Europe’s other national languages are diminishingly small minorities on the world stage?

With the notorious language barriers of Europe, the relative rate of translation-reading is a product of literary necessity, not a moral or political virtue.

As Parks puts it:

Both Grossman and Hemon applaud countries like Germany, France, and Italy where translations account for perhaps 50 percent of published fiction. What they do not say is that all but a few of these translations are from English [Nelson’s Note: Almost 50 percent translated from English?  Refer to the EU’s demographics cited above.]  and take the form of genre novels, detective stories, thrillers, and so on.

So commercially successful are these books in a country like Italy that the newspaper Corriere della Sera splits its best-seller list into domestic and foreign fiction, since otherwise there might be times when domestic authors would not feature. Some publishers concentrate almost exclusively on translations, freeing themselves from the arduous task of finding and fostering new writers in their own language.

Is this, then, American isolationism, or imperialism, or a new kind of internationalism?

I would submit that it’s simply a natural consequence of linguistic demographics.  In the US all but 4 percent of the population speaks English.  As Parks points out, “only 3 to 5 percent of books published in the US are translations.”   Of course those are translations into English, not into the languages of those 4 percent who can’t speak English, but the coincidence is striking.

In the EU, half of the people can’t speak English, and half of the published fiction is made up largely of translations from English.  There’s your rational explanation of the translation disparity, as unsatisfying as it might be to the America haters out there.  This is about the availability of worthwhile stuff to read.  As Parks points out, “many of the authors who appear in Best European Fiction 2010 are not widely published in other European countries.”

If they aren’t widely published in neighboring European countries, why would their lack of publication in the United States indicate something wrong with American culture? Answer: the foregone conclusion that America deserves a good sneer from anyone with an IQ above 90, a prejudice quite popular among those with IQs above 90 but still significantly lower than their self-appointed status as elite intellectuals would indicate.

And if you think my italicized deployment of the adjective “worthwhile” was harsh, consider Parks’ observation that

A University of Rochester research program lists 349 works of translated fiction and poetry published in the US in 2009, more than anyone could read in a single year and not, for the most part, made up of the kind of genre fiction that European countries import so avidly. Does the unceasing translation of the second-rate matter?

So, by this one European author’s implication, America is translating the best of the world, and the Europeans are translating what Parks dismisses (I think, unfairly) as “genre fiction.”

And, if most of the translations in Europe are from English, why should a 96-percent English speaking country be equally active in translating foreign-language works?  As an act of charity?  According to Parks, Edith Grossman seems to think so: “She … insists that American publishers have a special duty to foreign writers since without an English translation their work cannot compete for international literary prizes.”

Talk about patronizing imperialism!

But, when you get right down to it, what are Americans reading in general?  Rather ironically, foreign author Stieg Larsson‘s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, translated from Swedish, tops the New York Times best-seller list today.

If the anecdotal isn’t convincing, consider that the United States itself is as much a smorgasbord of cultures as Europe (if not more so) despite our common language: New Orleans is not Alaska is not South Side Chicago is not Kansas a is not Taos is not is not Miami is not Vermont is not Maui is not SoCal is not Houston.

The same “neighboring” authors who would require translation in Europe simply don’t in the United States. That doesn’t make us xenophobic; that makes us lucky enough to have a common tongue and expansive enough to “contain multitudes.” If anything, this disparity says more about the perennially fissiparous nature of Europe than it does about America.

And, with hyphenated Americans like Amy Tan and Khaled Hosseini keeping us connected to the outside world, it’s really hard to argue that Americans are rejecting translations out of some xenophobic cultural isolationism.  The low rate of translations is easy to explain: unlike smaller countries and smaller linguistic communities, America doesn’t have as much of a need to translate.

Enough with the effete anti-American snobbery.  It’s tired, it’s tedious, and it’s nothing more than a crude prejudice.


* I lucked into a two-volume set of Latin textbooks when I was a grade schooler.  I taught myself Latin and sang Adeste Fidelis for the Christmas program of a Baptist church in the heart of Appalachia.  In middle school, I not only read Tolkien like a good little geek, but I learned by heart several of the trilogy’s fictionally foreign poems, like A Elbereth Gilthoniel.

Professionally, I have translated both Arabic and Hindi/Urdu, although I never mastered Devanagari script.  I also have a keen interest in Polynesian languages, and invented an alphabet for them so that cognates are written the same way despite disparate local pronunciations.  The stories I write, particularly the world of The Observer, are infused with derivations from foreign languages and secret “Easter eggs” for the linguistically nerdified.

I’m not your knee-jerk, English only, furrner-hatin’ American jingo.

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1 Comment

  1. Well-said! The other reason more U.S. writers are read is that… in general, they’re better and more interesting writers.

    Like you, I’m tired of and bored with all these, as you aptly dubbed them, “effete, anti-American snobs.”


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