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Lost in translation: the narrowing of the American mind

About the author

KA Dilday worked on the New York Times opinion page until autumn 2005, when she began a writing fellowship with the Institute of Current World Affairs. During the period of the fellowship, she is travelling between North Africa and France. KA Dilday is currently planning a New York office for openDemocracy.

The Bush Administration has recruited prominent American writers to contribute to a state department anthology and give readings around the globe in a campaign started after 9/11 to use culture to further American diplomatic interests…

Some 31,000 English-language copies of the new anthology will be available. Editions in Arabic, French, Spanish and Russian are also being prepared. Additional translations into two dozen other languages are expected…
The New York Times, 7 December 2002

This diplomatic initiative is not a cultural exchange. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the State Department has not announced plans to bring cultural emissaries from other countries to the United States and translate their works into English. The omission will hardly be noticed given Americans’ anorexic appetite for translated literature.

A 2002 United Nations report on development in the Arab world cited the meagre number of translated books available there each year. But the annual figure, 330, is about the same number of translated literature titles that the United States, with its huge publishing industry, put out in 1999, the most recent year for which America’s National Endowment of the Arts has full figures. When viewed as a percentage of the total books published, the Arab world surpasses the United States.

The narrowing of the American mind

It is detrimental to deprive our intellectual exchange of the rich and varied stimuli that results from the infusion of different views, but, as Americans learned on 9/11, we need to know what is going on in the rest of the world as a matter of self-preservation. It shouldn’t be that, as an editor at Oxford University Press remarked drily during a seminar on world literature, “Everything seems to take Americans by surprise.”

Politically, America has become infamous as the beast that feeds only its own appetite, but this isn’t surprising since, given the nature of the US publishing industry, our own appetites are all that we know. And there is much to fear from a global power whose people remain unaware of cultural contradiction, uninterested in the passions of others; contented with mother’s milk from birth to death.

About 3% of the fiction and poetry published in the United States in 1999 was translated (approximately 330 out of the total 11,570 fiction and poetry titles published). America compares unfavourably to almost every other country and most unfavourably to western Europe, the region closest to an ideological sibling.

There, Germany translates the most works - about six times as many as the US each year. Spain is close behind, while the French publishing industry exceeds the US by four times.

Without translations, Americans, who are notoriously monolingual, have access only to the perspectives of those who write and speak in English; thus the ideas of millions are lost to them.

An article from the Index Translationum, the global database of lingual exchange that Unesco has maintained since 1948, reports:

“Several writers writing in languages other than English be it French, Arabic or Hindi complain of the overwhelming influence wielded by the Anglo-Saxon publishing industry. There is a certain arrogance, they claim, on the part of British and American publishing houses. It is as if they consider anything published in another language to be automatically inferior to what appears in English. They are reluctant to translate foreign books. So widespread is the influence of English as a language that publishers in Japan will accept a book for translation only if it has first been translated in English, as if being accepted by the publishing industry there had added intrinsic value to the work. And then the translation is often done from the English version, not from the original.”

When the Nobel Prize for literature is announced each year, most people in the United States have never heard of the winner unless the writer is American or British. As ideas traverse borders with increasing ease, among some American intellectuals it seems to be a point of pride to stay focused solely on the minds at home.

In 2002, the most widely-read survey of new books in the United States, The New York Times Book Review , published a commentary castigating a writer for bemoaning the state of the American novel. The New York Times writer stopped just short of calling the critic unpatriotic, describing him as “a philologist,” whose favourite writers were Austrian and North Korean, as if speaking several languages is a stomp to good old English and reading foreign authors an activity best left to back alleys.

Yet there was a time when Americans were actually impressed by linguists and the ability to appreciate foreign culture was a sign of cosmopolitanism and a good education. Europhilia was so pervasive among the intelligentsia that in 1952, the American literary magazine Partisan Review – now closing after sixty-eight years of publication – plaintively asked a panel of intellectuals: “Where in American life can artists and intellectuals find the basis of strength, renewal, and recognition, now that they can no longer depend fully on Europe as a cultural example and a source of vitality?” (italics added).

At the end of the 1940s, British (and of course Russian) writers still reigned in college literature departments. While aspiring American writers may have dreamed of the day, it would have been difficult to imagine that the time would come when other lands would admire US culture at the expense of their own or European. But the US government has proved to be the most influential literary critic of the 20th century.

The cold war in literature

During the cold war, as the Americans and the Soviets battled for ideological allegiance in every corner of the world, the US made strenuous efforts to challenge perceived Soviet influence in literary and cultural spheres. Nonetheless, with the aid of the CIA, the United States-sponsored “Congress for Cultural Freedom” (CCF) took on the task of convincing European intellectuals that the United States was not merely a country of philistines with crass mercantile values which could only be satisfied by a system that assigned everything a price, but one with a sophisticated mandarin class concerned with learning, literature, and high culture as well as the evisceration of communism. In her fascinating account of that period, The Cultural Cold War, Frances Stonor Saunders describes the CIA’s alliance with American and European intellectuals in the “intellectual Nato.”

From the end of the 1940s, the CCF secretly financed magazines that promoted anti-Communist works by American leftists and European writers like Czeslaw Milosz, Andre Gide and Arthur Koestler. Among the magazines was the the Partisan Review, Partisan Review, the fore-mentioned repudiator of European intellectual influence: that journal was, as Saunders documents, the beneficiary of barely-laundered CIA money, in blissful or more likely, wilful, ignorance.

Philip Roth was not affiliated with the CCF (which officially ended its activities in 1967) but he was able to take advantage of the appetite it created. As the first general editor of the literary series, “Writers from the Other Europe,” Roth introduced a number of eastern European authors to Americans in the 1970s. The series featured authors like Milan Kundera, Ivan Klima and Bruno Schulz and others “living behind the Iron Curtain” as the bookseller, Barnes and Noble describes it (although Schulz was killed by a Gestapo officer in 1942 several years before the Iron Curtain came down). The series ceased to exist about the time that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989; shortly afterwards one Czech novelist complained of the United States, “No one cares about us anymore.”

During the late 1960s and 1970s, American letters had its first “Latin boom”, a direct result of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. In 1965, concerned that Fidel Castro’s message had a greater regional hold, a group of Americans founded the Center for Inter-American Relations, (now the Americas Society) to promote closer ties between the US and its neighbours in the Americas and the Caribbean. The society promoted “cultural understanding through visual art, literature, and musical programs.” It financed translations of more than eighty classic and contemporary works by Latin American authors: one of the first was Gregory Rabassa’s translation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.

The dubious charms of patronage

Despite the decade of thawing since the cold war, translator Ammiel Alcalay says that the US publishing industry remains under the sway of the American “military-industrial complex.” A New York-based university professor and poet, Ammiel Alcalay translates from Hebrew, Serbo-Croatian and French as well as reading several other languages. He tried to interest publishers in writers from the former Yugoslavia for years. It wasn’t until the Bosnian war of 1992-95 that a few of those writers were published, although even then they received little attention. Few in the US have heard of writers like Ismail Kadare, the great contemporary Albanian novelist, and even fewer have read his work.

Yet as it completes its occupation of Iraq, the US “military-industrial complex” – sure of the perception that American culture trumps that of the Arab world – is doing little to disseminate the work of Arab-world dissidents. Joseph Nye, the dean of the Kennedy Center for Government at Harvard University, calls the effect of the blanket dissemination of American culture the “soft power” of the American empire. Although there are legal strictures on the distribution of propaganda on American soil, nonetheless, this soft power has helped chloroform the American intellect in its home territory also.

Among academics and in the publishing world, there is still a small but passionate community that seeks out all good literature regardless of language of origin. Steve Wasserman, the editor of The Los Angeles Times Book Review says that his ambition “is to bring to our readers news of the most important and worthwhile books being published, since literature famously respects no national border.” The Los Angeles Times did something unheard of in February 2003: in Los Angeles, where 42% of the residents speak Spanish in the home, the first volume of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s autobiography was selling briskly – in Spanish. Although the English translation had not yet been published Steve Wasserman commissioned a review written in Spanish by Gioconda Belli, a Nicaraguan-born writer, and published it alongside a translation of the review by Gregory Rabassa, the man who translated Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude in the 1970s.

Gabriel Marquez is a Nobel Prize winner. Barring similar recognition, the international authors whose works manage to attract a greater American audience are those which are picked up by a prominent figure among them. What Philip Roth did for Klima and Schulz in the 1970s, Susan Sontag did for W.G. Sebald in the 2000s: a few well-placed reviews, a glowing foreword and it is possible that an author whose books had previously languished in the United States can gain a following.

However, for intellectuals, there’s not much cultural capital to be gained from championing an Arab writer. It is more likely to bring political heartache than the reflected glory of successful patronage, particularly now, when relationships between the Arab world and the US are so toxic. Most of the literary intelligentsia won’t bother when there are plenty of talented European novelists and poets whose works are unread in the United States. And there is a common perception that great writers only emerge from the European tradition. Even after the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz won a Nobel Prize, his American publisher felt it necessary to plaster his European influences across the book jacket assuring readers that Naguib Mahfouz had been influenced by many canonic Western writers – Flaubert, Balzac, and “above all, Proust.”

The invisible foreigner

Among journalists, those other gatekeepers, a passport with many stamps is a badge of pride, but their desire for a broader intellectual perspective is limited. Often, it seems, it can be satisfied by perceptions filtered by an American correspondent or gleaned from casual conversations had when passing through a country. But a few brief conversations in English cannot replace lengthy well-thought out arguments that originate in other cultures and make their way into print as work of non-fiction.

Precious few make it into print in the United States though, because the structural obstacles to publishing translated literature are manifold. Even though the annual Frankfurt Book Fair is billed as an international literary market most of the traffic is American and British publishers selling rather than buying foreign rights. US publishing houses balk at the additional costs of having a book translated (which are negligible; “You get a cheque for $1000 for twenty-five years work,” according to one US-based translator)

Many marketing departments try to hide the fact that a book is a translation; booksellers often will not even order a translated book; and when booksellers do not buy in advance, the book is already locked into a small print run and expected to fail.

“Even if people wanted to get a book they often cannot find it,” says Cliff Becker, the head of the literary department at the National Endowment for the Arts. “With all of the obstacles, for an editor to publish a translated book, that editor really has to love it.” And to love it they have to be able to read it in the original language. Those editors who do speak another language generally know one of the major European ones. Thus, in 1999, almost three quarters of the new translations that were published in the US were from western European languages. Asia (south-east and East) and Africa were scarcely represented.

For a book to attract people who read literature, it has to be written about in magazines and newspapers. And it is these editors as well from whom marketing departments are hiding a book’s foreign origin. An editor for one of the United States most intellectually ambitious general interest magazines doesn’t assign translated fiction because he likes the reviewer to write about her relationship to the author and the prose; he sees the translator as standing between the reviewer and the author.

There is a place for the book review that itself aspires to be great literature or high-brow psychoanalysis – if not, the Times Literary Supplement and The New York Review of Books would have died long ago – but the editors of the shrinking book sections in the United States are in some ways charged with Aristotelian responsibility for the quality of public culture, taking up where the university left off. This notion may have a whiff of paternalism, but it is simply practical. Every book cannot be covered. Book reviews should remain true to their purpose: introducing readers to good books, or warning them of frightening ones, that should be read.

Strangers to the world

The passions and mores of other cultures travel most easily when borne on a fable. Writers give voice to unspoken national longing. It can’t be mere coincidence that literary skill often enables subversive political opinions to quietly circulate in oppressive states.

The hunger to appreciate literature from a foreign land can be the impulse to an enriching imaginative journey: despite selling only about 2000 – 3000 copies of most of their books, Barbara Epler, the editor of New Directions Press, America’s most prolific publisher of translated literature, still believes that “there are a lot of people out there who don’t want to read another book about divorce in Minneapolis.”

The writer Primo Levi wrote this in an essay about translation (translated by Zaia Alexander):

“Furthermore, there are many people who believe, more or less consciously, that a person who speaks another language is an outsider by definition, a foreigner, strange and, hence, a potential enemy, or at least a barbarian; that is, etymologically, a stutterer, a person who doesn't know how to speak, almost a nonperson. In this way, linguistic friction tends to turn into racial and political friction, another of our maledictions.”

Since 1970, more books have been translated into German than any other language. It may be that Germany’s moral pain has given Germans an active need to humanise the rest of the world. Shame is our bitter literary guide when intellectual rigour has failed. If only intellectual hunger would send us skidding to hinterlands in search of stimuli, we might avoid some corrosive human indecencies.

The peregrine voracity of the American appetite is infamous, the parochial nature of our reading tastes anomalous. As Steve Wasserman says, “I find it an irony in a land when there is much chest thumping about the merits of globalisation that we are becoming an ever more provincial people.”

When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Berlin Wall came down and the US ascended, Francis Fukuyama speculated that it might mean “the end of history.” The phrase well describes the domesticity that has landlocked the US publishing industry, and the intellectual and moral complacency that has allowed the American public to accept it.

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