Read any good books in translation recently? Chances are that you haven’t. On this week’s New York Times Best Seller List, only one translated novel (The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson, no. 23) appears among the 35 books ranked. Should this come as a surprise? Of the plethora of books that are out there for us to read, foreign books which need to be translated have an extra barrier on their journey towards our bookcase, so it makes sense that they will be less read.
All the same, many other countries have a discrete market for translated literature. Consider the bestseller lists in the following countries: currently in France 4 of the top 10 are translations, while in Spain this number is 6 out of 10. In Italy it is 2 out of 10 books, and in Germany 1 out of 5 for paperbacks and 4 out of 5 for hardcovers. Finally, in Brazil an astounding 20 out of 20 bestsellers are translations. Nevertheless, the preponderance of translations in other countries isn’t necessarily a sign of a globally-diversified literary diet. The foreign bestsellers cited above are nearly all translated from English; even if foreign literature is more popular in other countries, most people are reading Anglo-American literature.
This is excellent news for English and American authors like John Grisham, J.K. Rowling, Danielle Steele and Stephen King, who are masters of their art, but bad news for the world-wide discourse in literature, in which Herman Melville engages not only with Mark Twain and Ernest Hemingway but also with Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, and Franz Kafka. The thought of a great author transcends linguistic and political boundaries; unfortunately it seems like books which carry their words don’t cross the boundaries with quite the same ease. Says Robert Weil, an Executive Editor at W.W. Norton: “I always feel almost bereft that so much great literature is being ignored. If you were to sit down and comprehend how much we’re missing in English, you would have nightmares.”
Weil isn’t talking about the great classics of world literature, which are virtually all available in excellent English translations. Interesting things have happened in other parts of the world since the Trojan War, but how many of us haven’t read Greek literature written less than two millennia ago or picked up a translation of an Italian author more recent than Dante? Most of us have probably never read any Portuguese literature at all, and yet the profound literary studies of the human condition elaborated by Jose Saramago are relevant far beyond the boundaries of his tiny country. Before winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998, Saramago was quite unknown in the U.S. Luckily, translations of Blindness, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, and Baltasar and Blimunda are now widely available.
The system can be boiled down to a rather simple concept: The books that we buy are the books that are advertised and the books that we see in bookstores, and these books have been selected by publishing house editors, editors who often read only English, or, in the case of foreign countries, their native language and English. For obvious reasons editors tend to take chances only on books that they personally understand. Books that still need to be translated often suffer the consequences.
There is a world of literature out there to be explored and unfortunately much of it cannot be found in English. Learning to read in another language gives us a key to at least part of this world. Who knows what is waiting to be unearthed in Russian or French, Arabic or Chinese, Italian or Portuguese? The last undiscovered work of Saramago, Claraboia (Skylight), was published posthumously last year in Portuguese, Spanish, Catalan and Italian. The English translation will have to wait…