I don’t usually write posts that are acting as responses to other posts, but I saw a comment recently that suggested that it’s a little silly to have reading challenges for reading outside of our language/country and another that readers should already be naturally exploring translated fiction. Since this seems to crop up from time to time, especially in connection with the concern that we readers, from all countries, tend to focus too much on the English-language dominated “canon,” I thought I’d chirp in, at least so that I can focus my own thoughts.
While some of these points may be valid or well-intentioned, and while I think the whole discussion is ENTIRELY different for those whose first language is not English (see: this article about the reading habits of Europeans, many of whom apparently prefer English-language books), it seems a bit naïve to me to believe that readers—especially US readers—will naturally gravitate to translations or works from outside their country. To illustrate:
In 2007 I created a LibraryThing account and entered all the books I had read at that point. I have kept a list of what I’ve read since mid-1997, so the numbers go back that far: 343 books read since 1997. Of these, 30 were translations. Another one was half-read but not completed (so not in my completed list), and one was read in the original language. Four were written in English by authors originally from outside the US/Canada/UK.
I categorize them as follows:
Books read for school (required, high-school & university)
- Don Quixote (Miguel de Cervantes) [half-read—shhh—don’t tell my teacher!]
- One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez)
- Selections from the Decameron (Giovanni Boccacio)
Waiting (Ha Jin)
- The Odyssey (Homer)
- The Romance of Tristan and Iseult (Joseph Bedier retelling)
- La Casa de Bernarda Alba (Frederico García Lorca) [read in Spanish]
- Medea (Euripides)
- Antigone (Sophocles)
- Oedipus Rex (Sophocles)
- All Quiet on the Western Front (Erich Maria Remarque)
- Night (Eli Wiesel)
- The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende)
Books read on my own
- Bible (Anonymous)
- Daughter of Fortune (Isabel Allende)
- Portrait in Sepia (Isabel Allende)
- Eva Luna (Isabel Allende)
- City of Beasts (Isabel Allende)
- Zorro (Isabel Allende)
- The General in His Labyrinth (Gabriel García Márquez)
- The Club Dumas (Arturo Perez-Reverte)
- The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
- The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas)
- Arabian Nights (Husain Haddawy translation)
- The Alchemist (Paolo Coelho)
- The Metamorphosis (Ovid)
- Perfume (Patrick Susskind)
- Around the World in 80 Days (Jules Verne)
Books read because of online challenges/readalongs
- The Divine Comedy (Dante Alighieri)
- The Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)
- The Savage Detectives (Roberto Bolaño)
- Santa Evita (Tomás Eloy Martínez)
Books in English
- Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe, for school)
- In the Time of the Butterflies (Julia Alvarez, for school)
- Ilustrado (Miguel Syjuco)
- Saving the World (Julia Alvarez)
- Waiting (Ha Jin)
Not counting the last 4, that means 32/344 [includes incomplete book] were translated works, or 9.3%. That’s it. In 15 years. If it hadn’t been for school requirements, I might not yet have read the 13 for school, and another 6 from my “on my own” list, having discovered their authors through school. That would bring my average down to 4%.
Why do I tell you all this? Because I think it’s fairly reflective of a typical American reader. Go to the library, the bookstore, and the books on the shelves are far and away mostly works in translation. In fact, I’ve had to request several books from outside my library system because they weren’t available (and my library system isn’t small). Or, if you don’t believe me, look at the Classics Club lists—over 150 of them and the vast majority (not all!) are heavily focused on American/British fiction. (I should note, a number of these lists are by readers for whom English is a second or third language, so they are reading outside their tradition.) So when I see a reader saying that they feel it should just be a given that someone spends, say 10% of their time with works from outside their language or country, I feel it is naïve at best. There are all sorts of reasons (excuses?) many readers aren’t doing so, good or bad. Some of those I can think of:
- An abundance of choice within one’s own region.
- A lack of readily available choice from outside of one’s region.
- Marketing successes and/or failures: success at promoting the local market, failure to promote the “outsiders”
- Those pesky lists: while they can be great—the international edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die includes many, many non-US/UK authors I’d never heard of—, many of them are very English-centric. One prominent example: the MLA 100 top books of the 20th century. Among the criteria for books on this list was that they be originally in English. The list is full of great books (and room for debate, of course!), they just happen to be all in English.
- Fear. Fear that we won’t get it, because the culture is foreign, or the references are meaningless. (This is a good reason for good annotated texts!) Fear that the translation will “feel” like a translation—that it will be rough or bumpy. Fear of names we can’t pronounce. (Actually, for me, this is a major annoyance—I want to say it correctly, darnit!) Fear that it will just be plain hard.
- Bad experiences with bad translations.
- Plain ol’ lack of interest. If I as a reader prefer a particular genre/style and I can’t find translated works in that genre/style, I might see no reason to bother.
- Too many books already on our lists! Even though I’ve lived my entire life in the US, there are still an abundance of books by American authors I’ve never read—I’ve read almost none of the 20th century “great” books.
- Not knowing how to find them. Finding non-English classics from before 1900 or so can require a lot of research if you want to go beyond to obvious, such as Dumas, Hugo, Dante, etc. (The best suggestion I’ve seen relative to this is to ask a professor of literature of that language.)
- We’ve not been exposed to other literatures or cultures or are actively biased against them.
- I’m sure there are others…
So this is why I think it’s naïve—and can come across at times as downright snobbish—to express dismay at other-language/country challenges or to confidently assert that most readers should be reading works in translation without difficulty. Challenges remind us when we’re not doing as well as we might like. They introduce us to books we might not otherwise find—not to mention other readers and points-of-view.
Now there’s another little pickle as part of this: the “serious” reader, which is often part of the conversation. I both agree and disagree with the notion that a “serious” reader should be naturally looking outside their comfort zone.
- Even if you are focused on just one area of literature, there are usually foundational texts that are commonly referenced within in that tradition. For example, the Bible and the Ancient Greeks are common sources to literatures of many countries. So even if you aren’t “studying” the books you are reading, it can be useful to know these background works so you can follow the story.
- I think anyone who has spent a lot of time thinking about reading and books will likely realize that there is so much more out there than they now read. (And then panic. How can we get to it all?)
- I am almost always in favor of expanding our own boundaries and 100% in favor of life-long learning. (Although…have you heard about the guy with 29 degrees? That’s an extreme I can’t imagine going to…maybe if I were independently wealthy…)
- The most famous works from other countries are often part of the cultural conversation, just as works from our own countries are. It just makes sense to read them.
- The Definition Problem. What do we mean by “serious reader”? I think a lot of people might say “someone who takes literature seriously” (wow, is that circular logic or what, Amanda?), but to some that might mean nothing more than reads a lot, regardless of the level of their reading. I have a feeling this could be one of those definitions that could result in a lot of contentious debate. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a definition, just that it could be hard to arrive at a consensus. (To be clear, I think a “serious reader” is more about the quality of reading rather than the quantity, but I think it becomes really sticky when we start trying to qualify which those quality reads “should” be.)
- If someone has already spent a good chunk of time focusing on another country or language or style, and has chosen to move on/return to their comfort zone should we figuratively wrap their knuckles for not pushing the boundaries?
- If someone is just starting out their explorations, they may not yet realize how interconnected so much of literature is, or the value of exploring other-language predecessors. I certainly never thought about it until a year or two ago. (Thanks, Dante!) I don’t see the need to scare someone away by questioning how “serious” they are if they aren’t pushing the boundaries.
- The risk of turning someone off a real exploration of reading by telling them they’re not (already) serious enough. This might not bother some people, but I’d rather not do that. Baby steps.
So I’ve probably dipped my foot into a highly charged topic, but I figured if I was running the thoughts through my brain, I might as well type them up. And also depress myself at the thought of how many books I still have to read. Please, ancestors, tell me I have your longevity genes—it looks like I’m gonna need every year I can get and then some!
As for me personally, why do I wish to explore works from other countries/why do I join challenges?
Mostly, the honors Colloquium I as required to take in college: most of the books we covered were from other countries. One Hundred Years of Solitude (plus all that high-school Spanish) really sparked my interest in Latin American fiction. Also, my semester in Italy prompted me to consider I haven’t read much in the way of Italian fiction (one book to date, eek!). One thing just leads to the next. So, the best thing I think we as bloggers can do is promote, promote, promote—and not just among ourselves, but everywhere. Italy had nothing to do with reading for pleasure, but it certainly enriched my life—and hopefully my reading.
Promote, encourage, celebrate!
Some challenges I’m currently aware of:
- Dutch Lit Month 2012, to the end of June, hosted by Iris
- Spanish Language Lit Month, July 2012, hosted by Stu & Richard
- Paris in July, July 2012, hosted by Karen & Tamara
- Japanese Literature Challenge 6, June 1, 2012-January 30, 2013, hosted by Bellezza
- Books in Translation Reading Challenge, 2012, hosted by Jen
- Aussie Author Challenge, 2012, hosted by Joanne
- Greek Classics Challenge, 2012, hosted by Jean
- Africa Reading Challenge, 2012, hosted by Kinna
Edited to add: Tom quite correctly pointed out in the comments that Waiting (Ha Jin) was actually written in English. I’ve relocated it, but not adjusted the math.