Monday, February 16, 2009

(Not) Lost in Translation

A slap-down for all of us who haven't read Suite Francaise. Aviya Kushner, writing in The Wilson Quarterly, decries the lack of interest in translated literature.

"It's not that Americans aren't interested in the world at all," she argues. "It's just that we seem to want someone else to do the heavy lifting required to make a cultural connection." The Peruvian-born writer Daniel Alarcon tells her that too many of us would rather read stories by an American about Peru than the translated work of a Peruvian writer.

I like Kushner's essay, but it's not clear to me how reading work in translation is heavier lifting for Americans than reading work in English. And is Kushner arguing that there is something inherently valuable in literature translated from other languages? Is The Reader necessarily more eye-opening and world-expanding than On Beauty, because the first was written in German and the second in English?

And is there a difference between consuming world music and world literature? What about going out for dinner at that Afghan restaurant?

Any lovers of literature-in-translation out there? Fans of fado? Defend yourselves!


  1. I occasionally read novels in translation. I don't choose translated works more often because in my experience the translations are frequently stiff and dry. Maybe the translators are trying too hard to be true to the original text, maybe they're just not very good writers, maybe I've just been unlucky.

  2. Thanks, Unfocused. I don't know how to evaluate translations. I was taught that a translation is a work in itself, apart from the original work. That it was a re-imagining of the original work. But without knowing the original language, how do we even know where one work ends and the other begins? Do we have to read multiple translations of the same work? You can approach film, food, and music from other countries without any knowledge of the world from which it comes and still take away from the experience something satisfying and valuable. But literature throws up more barriers. Maybe that's the heavy lifting.

  3. One more thing: The Boston Globe's excellent Brainiac blog links to this short list of finalists for the 2009 Best Translated Book award.

  4. When I read the review in the link below, I thought of this post about a translated novel. Although I enjoyed The Shadow of the Wind, I didn't like it half as much as this blogger did: