Lost In Translation

Earlier today I was reflecting on two articles,  one located hereconcerning publications in America and the woeful lack of international literature among them.

Only 2% to 5% of all books published in the United States come from a non-English language source. I always knew American society is insular with regards to international culture, but this low figure still surprised me. While some non-Anglophobe authors publish their works in English, most of them don’t, which leaves us completely unexposed to the overwhelming majority of  the world’s writings.

Imagine having no knowledge of most of humanity’s works – the different styles, stories, mythologies, wisdoms, and perspectives. It’s disheartening to think of all the knowledge I’m deprived of due to my geographic location (though I fault myself for not being as diligent with learning other languages). What of our society as a whole? The most powerful nation in the world, with a culture so ubiquitous across the globe, scarcely has any literary and academic contact with all but a handful of English-speaking countries. It’s a very one-sided affair for a country that almost singularly dominates the global media market. As the author of a book on the subject, Why Translation Matters, noted:

The free exchange of literary ideas, insights, and intuitions — a basic reciprocity of thought facilitated by the translation of works from other cultures — is central to a free society.

For all this, American publishers certainly bear some blame. They generally claim that translations would cost too much, and since most Americans aren’t interested in international literature, they’d lose a lot of money. But this raises a question of causality: is the lack of interest on the part of American readers the reason why publishers don’t bother translating and publishing such works? Or is it the lack of such publishing on part of the publishers leads to or facilitates of our disinterest?

Personally, I think it is a bit of both. Americans have always maintained a sense of entitlement and exceptionalism, and we view our society and its values as inherently superior, such that we have little inclination to look elsewhere for any other idea or alternative point of view. Why supply the viewpoints of another civilization if we don’t view them as worthy of our time? I’m not asserting that Americans are unique in this perception, or intentionally close-minded; isolationism simply has a strong and historical presence in our society (which is something best left to be discussed in another post).  While I wish publishers could be enlightened and illuminate us with world literature anyway, I know that is not their job, and the demand that beckons them simply isn’t there in any profitable degree (though this does inspire to someday found a publishing company geared specifically for this purpose).

To be clear, I’m well aware that I am coming from a bias towards cosmopolitanism and world culture. But even factoring that in, I think it’s safe to say that this deficiency of  world literature is a serious concern. Not only are we denied a variety of unique and enlightening perspectives, but we retain – if not worsen – a disconnection from the rest of the world we proclaim to be leading; a world we’re constantly involved in despite a considerable lack of understanding. From the article linked above:

The dearth of translated literature in the English-speaking world represents a new kind of iron curtain we have constructed around ourselves. We are choosing to block off access to the writing of a large and significant portion of the world, including movements and societies whose potentially dreadful political impact on us is made even more menacing by our general lack of familiarity with them. Our stubborn and willful ignorance could have — and arguably, already has had — dangerous consequences. The problem starts in the Anglophone publishing industry, where translated books are not only avoided but actively discouraged…

This will come to no surprise to long-established readers or friends of mine, but I’ve always held strongly to the notion that knowledge, dialogue, and empathy- as would be provided by transcultural literature – is a necessary prerequisite to peace, cooperation, and progress. If we expose ourselves to the cultural products of other countries and civilizations, we create a bond with them. We see their depth and their humanity, and we sympathize with them better. When we read and learn about the views, thoughts, and experiences of ‘foreigners,’ they become less alien to us and far easier to relate with. Jingoism, parochialism, and bigotry become eroded and marginalized.

It can be  argued that America’s status as the world’s foremost immigration hub does similarly create a diverse, dialectical, and progressive society. But other cultures generally become Americanized within a few generations, and American society is largely geared towards assimilation. Interactions with immigrants within our own cultural context is no substitute for delving into their deeper ideals and perceptions as provided by their media and literature. While our wonderfully multicultural society bridges many divides, it’s not as effective as connecting to other cultures on their own terms.

Feeling a connection with an author who’s subject matter or narrative is completely alien to you is a wonderful experience, for it breaches barriers in favor of transcendent human-wide values. It is the ability to transcend cultural, religious, ethnic, national, and  numerous other differences in order to establish a personal connection. It’s something I’ve had the joy of experiencing for years as both an international relations major and someone who simply enjoys other cultures. Being able to discover all that we share, in spite of what we don’t, is an enlightening, touching, and even sobering exercise.

To read of how other societies struggle with the same needs, ambitions, and conflicts brings us a closer to them and their interests, facilitating cooperation towards pursuing similar interests (for example, all societies are concerned about education, job growth, the erosion of moral values, and so on). Discovering alternative policies, explanations, and theories for various subjects  introduces us to solutions we may never have otherwise realized. There is literally a world of ideas out there that we’re completely oblivious to.

I am in no way claiming that reading stuff from around the world will usher in world peace and prosperity. My sole point  is that we would stand to benefit tremendously from reversing this entrenched cultural isolation. There is a lot beyond our borders that we’re completely missing out on. Even setting aside my bleeding-heart rhetoric on the matter, one can certainly argue that, at the very least, it would make for interesting reading.