Recently, I watched an Iranian, an Italo-Palestinian, and an American Jew take the stage at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, backed by a string quartet. There’s a punch line in there somewhere. (A reporter for the Village Voice quipped, “Even Rush Limbaugh couldn’t make up a funnier parody of what Upper East Side Manhattanites do on a Tuesday night.”) “Exit Strategies” was one of the first events of this year’s PEN World Voices Festival, and its participants, Marjane Satrapi, Rula Jabreal, and Tony Kushner, would repeatedly and somewhat apologetically call it an “experiment.” The Kronos Quartet — never a group to back down from an experiment — was meant to play pretty much nonstop, as the writers spoke with (or over) them. Kushner had the most success, reading a poem about grief and working with the cadences of the music. Satrapi talked about the moment the world’s view of Iran shifted from princes and flying carpets to riots and religious extremists; she was improvising warmly but apprehensively, which left her occasionally shouting past the quartet. But Jabreal barely acknowledged the musicians at all, determined to deliver a cavalcade of political talking points: the wars, corruption in Washington, the health-care crisis, and the Republican primary field, all dredged up for a clearly liberal audience that probably never wanted to hear about Michele Bachmann again.
It was a strange night. The Village Voice reporter likened the Kronos Quartet to the band on the sinking Titanic, but it wasn’t as bad as all that — and he admitted as much, too. It was definitely an experiment, interesting at times, nerve-wracking at others, but the thing that struck me was the conversational clash that followed, like when Jabreal asked Satrapi what she thought the 2012 election looked like outside the United States, as the quartet plowed on in the background, and a clearly frustrated Satrapi said that she was elated by the music — and really wasn’t interested in talking about Mitt Romney. The declaration earned her the biggest applause of the night.
They both had fair points: the event was ostensibly about music; the program didn’t promise a dissection of American politics. But it was an opportunity for two Middle Eastern women to talk about their vantages from abroad, specifically from such cosseted places as Iran and Palestine — views that are a fair bit harder to find than most in the American literary landscape. This was the seventh annual PEN World Voices Festival, which brings together writers from around the world to, according to this year’s introduction, “celebrate the power of the written word in action.” It purports the values of PEN itself, whose charter states that: “Literature knows no frontiers and must remain common currency among people in spite of political or international upheavals.”
PEN World Voices is one of the foremost international literary events in New York City, a place that, as the center of American publishing and home to a basically alarming number of writers, looks inward — celebrates the local, perhaps — more often than not. I’m as guilty as any of literary jingoism: I attend maybe one reading per week in Brooklyn or Manhattan, and it may be partly my own fault, but the writers I encounter nearly always hail from the Anglophone world, whether they’re native-born or have emigrated here or to the UK. Most of the authors I read fall into the same category. The topics I’m interested in, the regions in which I’d like to see a story set — all of these fall within the confines of English-speaking lands. And I think this is probably a personal failing. Maybe I don’t need to know how Mitt Romney comes off in Iran. But so little writing from the vast majority of the world penetrates the American literary scene, and my own personal literary scene. It’s an age-old complaint, but things don’t really seem to be changing. You can seek out literature from just about anywhere — and now it’s easier than any previous point in history — but it’s a hell of a lot harder to bring it into the conversation.
There’s that famous and damning statistic: translated works make up just three percent of the American book market (and, in contrast, sixty percent of all the translated literature in the world comes from English). The University of Rochester, who named their translated literature site, Three Percent, after the fact, suggests that when narrowed down to literary fiction and poetry, the number drops to a paltry 0.7 percent. There contemporary notable exceptions, from genre (Stieg Larsson and the European crime-novelist wave that has sprung up in his stead) to mega-bestsellers (Paulo Coelho, Umberto Eco) to the literary masters (Gabriel García Márquez, Orhan Pamuk, José Saramago, and a handful of others) that have become permanent fixtures in our canon. And of course there are the hippest of the modern-day literary heavyweights, Haruki Murakami and Roberto Bolaño. But the majority of translated literature remains largely obscure, lauded in niches within the publishing and reading worlds but failing to impact the broader public.
The translation question is an old and thorny one. Foreign books, anecdotal wisdom suggests, are a big gamble: “There’s a general perception in the trade that these books can be difficult to sell,” one publisher told the Guardian. “As long as that persists it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Reading in translation is often a tricky prospect: the conflict between readability and remaining faithful to the original language lies at the heart of the ethics of translation. Look at the line-by-line differences between Murakami’s translators, Jay Rubin, Alfred Birnbaum, and Phillip Gabriel. Some passages are wildly different, clunky with too-literal translations, or, on the other end of the spectrum, full of Western idioms and surprisingly liberal interpretations of Murakami’s words. It leaves the reader in translation feeling a little distrustful, and inadequate. I can’t imagine learning Japanese — I only got past high-school level French!
And perhaps part of the trouble is that translation means more than replacing a word with its foreign equivalent: there’s a broader cultural undercurrent at work when we talk about Americans and international literature, a question of how a book will read on this side of the Atlantic. Take, for example, Tim Parks’ diatribe against Jonathan Franzen and Freedom, from the New York Review of Books about a year ago. He begins with an absurd press release from the American publisher of Thomas Pletzinger, a German novelist: “Pletzinger is German, but you wouldn’t know it from his debut, which is both wise and worldly.” Parks is incredulous:
What a wonderful insight this careless moment of blurb-talk gives us into the contemporary American mindset! We want something worldly, but if it seems too German, or perhaps just too foreign, we become wary. As my mailbag indicates, the literary community is very much an international phenomenon, but not, it would seem, a level playing field. To make it in America Pletzinger must shed his German-ness as if he were an immigrant with an embarrassing accent.
Parks quickly moves on to Franzen, whom he accuses of aggressive, list-heavy American-ness: he takes fault with the European fascination with Freedom, saying that there are no Italian words for half of Franzen’s lists, from foosball table to “mechanized recliner.” The Italian translator chimed in, indignant, in the comments, giving exact translations for foosball and La-Z-Boy and insisting that, despite Parks’ claim, the Italian for “mechanized recliner” is just as ugly as the English. But I think that the broader point still stands. Reading The Corrections last year — that’s a solid decade after everyone else read it, which I quickly learned when I tried to discuss it with people — I couldn’t help but feel like all those cultural references were incredibly dated, a lot of otherwise engaging prose weighed down by Y2K-era jargon. Cultural references are tricky, whether they’re traveling across geographical or temporal borders. But is something substantial lost with their removal?
Three Percent is trying to revive May as “World in Translation Month,” and it’s an obviously laudable goal. But it remains to be seen how they — or anyone — can effectively market an entire world of literature that’s still failed to catch on amongst the majority of the American reading public. I’ve seen the attempts: articles, blogs, word-of-mouth from friends or booksellers, offering up blind recommendations, the author’s name, title, and original language, and I don’t know how to parse it. I’m guilty myself: just the other day, halfway through Cheikh Hamidou Kane’s Ambiguous Adventure, the first book in translation I’ve read in a long while, I found myself trying to talk about it with a few friends. “He’s Senegalese,” I said. They looked at me expectantly, waiting for something more helpful than nationality. “It’s about colonialism.” They nodded. “It was translated by the woman who did The Little Prince,” I tossed in. “Ah!” one said. A relief: a cultural frame of reference. I give most books a hard sell, but I had so few tools at my disposal, reading a Senegalese book translated from French half a century ago, and fault here lies with me, not with Kane, whose book is extraordinary and subtle and philosophical and unlike anything else I’ve read about the colonial experience, which, coming from a person who essentially majored in postcolonialism, is saying something.
Ambiguous Adventure is part of a Melville House series called the Neversink Library, which “champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored.” I’m taking that last designation to heart. There’s a danger in become too prescriptive with foreign literature: we should be reading it, that it’s good for us, that it’s our duty as citizens of the world to read books from every corner of it. The Neversink project seems to offer an antidote to that: titles carefully chosen and offered up with the simple explanation that these books are so good they never should have slipped past or from the public consciousness. All good books transcend the place and time in which they were written: the whole point is to write something specific that becomes universal, after all. So perhaps the best way to transcend the barriers of international literature is to no longer market it as such. A good book is a good book. We need to read more in translation — and we simply need to read more. Maybe dropping all of these labels is a good place to start.