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Americans don't like to read translation?

Following the CNN report about the top Nobel judge's unfavorable comment on American literature and the reactions it stirred up, there is heated discussion on a writer's online forum I frequent. It's understandable that many American writers are angered by Engdahl's words, and they return fire by bombasting the Nobel committee's ignorance, which is quite effective.

Personally, however, I'm more interested in how much truth is contained in this particular statement:

 "The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining." (AP)


 In the discussion on the aforementioned online forum, at least one writer agrees that most American publishers shun translations due to the assumption that Americans don't like to read stories set outside the US, not even stories written in English set elsewhere.

 As I noted in a book review earlier, Howard Goldblatt, America's foremost translator of Chinese literature, says in a March interview with China's Southern Weekly that Americans don't read much literary translation. I wonder why. It is a bit difficult for an immigrant like me to comprehend this mentality, because in my youth I read far more literary translations from Europe (France, England, Russia, etc.) and America (such as Hemingway, Mark Twain and Jack London) than Chinese novels. My older sister, who doesn't even have a college education, loves to read translations too. The only literary magazine she subscribes to is Translation Forest (<译林>). We are hardly exceptions among our generation.

 I hope some of you will offer insights into this: is it true that Americans are much less interested in literary translation than works written by Americans about America? If so, why? It seems to me "too isolated, too insular" is a bit too simplified, too trite a conclusion.

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I am interested in good writing wherever it originates.  My problem with most translations is that, to write a translation that rivals the original work in originality, voice, and intent requires an incredible talent, and very rarely will a publisher go to the trouble to locate such a talent and match it with appropriate works to be translated.

What happens, then, is you get either a watered down, stilted, or ineffectual translation of something that was wonderful in it's original tongue.

 I believe the same thing is true in many cases when English is translated.  I recently had a novel translated to Italian, and my Italian friends say that it is...not exactly the same book. 

 If I can see that the person translating a work feels passionately about that work, then I am likely to read it.  If it seems like it's been packaged by a publisher, and not much info is given on the translator, I would be less likely to read it.  I realize this limits the translated work I wll be able to enjoy, but it also prevents my getting a skewed view of the work itself. 

Does that help?


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It does help a bit. Thanks,

It does help a bit. Thanks, David. Do you think though, in general, that Americans are less interested in reading about other cultures than their own?

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Not at all

I think most of us who read are fascinated by other cultures; I know I am.  I think that there is a tendency among works considered "literary" to be dry, or depressing, and that a lot of what gets translated ends up in this realm, or in political fiction...which may account for the lack of immediate popularity.

I love finding the similarities and differences between my life here, and those of others in far away lands...though with the Internet as prominent as it is these days, that world had gotten considerably smaller.