Sunday, July 3, 2011

Translations, cultural ubiquity and Anglo-American superiority - a rant

Unfortunately, I can't find a translation of the interview into English, but a few weekends ago I read a very interesting (and very frustrating) article in the Ha'aretz weekend supplement. Not, I must stress, my typical source for book-related news. The interview is between Israeli author Nir Baram and The Paris Review editor Lorin Stein. At first, the interview was curious and somewhat pretentious - Ha'aretz is known for its attempts at raising its nose high - but then I hit the following (unedited) question and answer (my translation from Hebrew):
BARAM: This is obviously not the fault of authors, but it's interesting to note that in the Anglo-American world, very few books get translated. The differences between the number of translations in the U.S. and countries like Germany, France and others are very large. There's even a publisher called "3%", in defiance of the U.S. translations policy. As a French translator and as the editor of The Paris Review, a literary magazine that has always sought to present authors and literary works from across the globe, how do you explain this phenomenon? Is the impression that because of the vast range of cultures included within the Anglo-American literary field, they cover experiences from all over the world and effectively present all potential voices?

STEIN: I don't think it's possible to truly discuss a "policy" regarding literary translations. If put crudely, one can say that Dutch publishers translate American literature because they like it and it sells well. Why do they like it? Why does it sell well? First of all, Dutch editors and reviewers grew up in a culture heavily influenced by American products and they feel it's within their ability to review and assess our books. And it's true that many of them also studied English in school (because English is still more useful internationally than Dutch). Furthermore, the Dutch are serious readers, but they live in a small country and want more serious literature in addition to their own. Finally, if we return to your earlier question: it's possible that Dutch readers feel, rightfully so or not, that there's something more "universal" to American literature, that to read about Americans is, to a certain extent, like reading about the greater world. 150 years ago, American readers felt this way about English and French literature.

Now let's flip the equation. American publishers didn't grow up in a setting with Dutch films, television, Barbie dolls, etc. They've never studied Dutch in school. American reviewers are hesitant to write about literature they barely know. And let's admit it: the problems likely to be discussed in a contemporary, ambitious Dutch novel - the tension between Christians and Muslims, for example - aren't necessarily interesting even for the more serious San Francisco reader. In my mind, this isn't a sign that Americans lack curiosity or are intellectually lazy as compared to others, but rather that we and the Dutch are live in the same metaphor: the U.S. is the cosmopolis.
Let's begin with a nod and shake of my head at Baram. I appreciate his question incredibly, but I also have to gently point out that the publishers aren't called "3%"... that's just the name of their blog. But hey - thanks for pointing it out, especially to Israeli readers who probably had no idea that publishers like that even existed. Kudos!

Now I begin to take issue with Stein's remarks. Throughout the interview, I was a little put-off by Stein's pretentious and assured attitude, but it made sense - the guy is editor of a very respected literary magazine, he's been editor to some big names, and he has access to some of the most impressive literary-minded folks in the U.S. It wasn't until the above exchange that I truly got annoyed, first by the stupid use of the Netherlands as an example in an Israeli newspaper (I mean, seriously, couldn't you think of your audience?) and later, by the excuse that Americans don't actually need to read translations, because it can all be found in the Great United States.

I think I'm most angered by the flippant comment that even the most serious of American readers won't be interested in issues from around the world, as long as they aren't "relevant" to them. I'm honestly trying to figure out what Stein was trying to say here, after attempting to paint a picture that it isn't that American readers are lazy or uninterested. Um, isn't that exactly what you're saying? Or our cultural non-exposure... is that also so easily forgivable and ignored?

It's Stein's attitude that's so frustrating. He's trying to avoid answering the question with the real answer: publishing is an industry, economics works according to supply and demand, no demand for translations means no supply... end of story. In the next question, Baram coyly raises the Bolaño factor, pointing out the immense popularity that this modernist foreigner has garnered. The conversation thus shifted to discussing specific authors and moved away from the translations question, leaving it rather unanswered. Why is Stein made so uncomfortable saying outright that publishers don't want to publish books they think people won't want to read? That's the impression I get from his long Netherlands-U.S. analogy. Why beat around your own stupid bush?

At the end of the day, I just disagree with Stein. I don't think that serious readers of literature won't identify with a book that takes place in a different culture for the simple reason that human nature is universal... and that's one of the main reasons we read. Also, we read sci-fi and classics and fairy tales and historical fiction... why would we have trouble relating to different worlds? Meanwhile, I think the ubiquity of Anglo-American culture around the world is a curious and even troubling phenomenon, one that shouldn't be the basis for assuming that other cultures are essentially inferior (again the impression I got from Stein's comments).

It's also kind of funny when put into context. Stein is touting this American "we don't need your foreign lit'rature" stuff in an Israeli newspaper. The Israeli literary market is flooded with Anglo-American titles, often comprised of seriously hyped books that don't necessarily deserve the immortality of translation. You can pretty much count on a popular U.S. book coming out in Israel within a few months of its U.S. publication, whether it's high quality or not. Israeli authors, meanwhile, struggle and wait years to get their books to English (which is almost considered the highest honor a foreign author can get, if you listen to some people...). Nir Baram himself, for instance, has not been introduced to the American market, but authors with much less literary capital than he that hail from the U.S. of A. have made it to Israel...

I won't pretend to be an expert in the field of literary translations. As my family and friends know, I'm just an overly obsessive amateur who follows Three Percent almost religiously. I've grown to understand more about translations in general over the past few years in part thanks to my job as a translator (though, granted, not a literary translator by any means...) and though I've made it a point to educate myself on the matter, I can't say I necessarily know what I'm talking about. But I know what pisses me off. I know what things sound like they're being spoken of without thought and what things sound like they're being spoken of without care. Stein's comments come off as aloof and full of Anglo-American superiority. Granted, this is likely a translated interview (unless Stein speaks Hebrew)... who knows what he said in the original?

I'm fascinated to know what others think of the topic and Stein's comments. Am I misunderstanding Stein? Is he just telling the truth as he sees it? What do you think?

Update: I found the official Ha'aretz English version of the interview but it's a bit messy and is somewhat edited (for instance, it doesn't include the reference to Three Percent but includes a bit about Stendhal and Hawthorne that was excluded from the Hebrew version).


  1. it sort of makes some sense to me. the bottom line of course is numbers, but i think he may be on to something with respect to WHY American readers tend to be relatively uninterested in foreign literature.

  2. Thank you for translating this for us. The problem is that he doesn't seem to be really answering the questions - just skirting round the issue. I think the problem here in the UK (and probably the US too) is that we have no exposure to translated fiction as children. I had no idea how good it could be until I stumbled across it as an adult. I think that people are interested in issues from around the world, but most people need to be educated about the fact it actually exists.

  3. I believe that the reason why American books are translated is because most of them are highly commercial, appealing to most readers from all over the world. Many of these books have the beautiful girl, the handsome dark-eyed man and the inevitable happily ever after. If a book as these characteristics it won't make the reader step outside his comfort zone, making the book highly profitable.
    The truth is that many of the good literary fiction from all around the world aren’t translated because not every reader is able to read that kind of book, making it less profitable.

  4. Thanks so much for translating the article.

    I may be setting myself up for some angry comments, but I believe you may be being a bit too hard on Stein. I think what he was speaking to was the ubiquitous nature of American (and British) pop-culture. For better or worse - we're excellent at advertising. And while the Dutch comparison is extreme, because of all the Hollywood/movie tie-ins names like Harry Potter (British, but Anglo), Stephen King, Charlaine Harris, etc. are probably more pervasive internationally. Now whether or not you (or I) agree with his comment is another matter, but I don't believe it is completely invalid.

    What I do agree with is that he is trying to excuse the inexcusable - and avoid the bigger question. The U.S. doesn't publish enough translations. And those that are published are nowhere near as well marketed as their American & British counterparts. I believe the publishing industry is partly at fault - creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. The success of authors like Larsson, Bolaño, Márquez, Coetzee, etc. prove that there is a readership for translations in this country - if those books are brought to the public's attention. (Personally, I've never met anyone who put down a book because it didn't have a "Made in America" label).

    By the way, I've become completely addicted to 3% as well! Have you listened to their podcast?


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