Found in translation
The Turkish writer Orhan Pamuk, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2006, believes the English-speaking world must change its attitude to literature in translation.
"Most of the writers here write in English," said Pamuk. "Maybe that's because the official language here is English. But for those working in other languages, their work is rarely translated and never read. So, much of human experience is marginalised."
This complaint, voiced during a speech at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India earlier this year, might seem a surprising one coming from Pamuk. Although he writes in his native Turkish, his books have gone on to widespread readership in the English-speaking world. But that kind of attention is guaranteed by a Nobel, and Pamuk believes even while he is read in the Anglo-Saxon world, English-speaking critics often judge his work on terms different from those they use for literature in English.
"When I write about love, critics in the US and Britain say 'this Turkish writer writes very interesting things about Turkish love'. Why can't love be general?"
Pamuk's complaint is not a new one: the idea that the Anglo-Saxon world should open its eyes to foreign literature - especially fiction - has been around for decades. Most believe that the unchecked rise of English as a global language - which has found most recent expression, of course, online - hasn't helped. At Jaipur, festival organiser William Dalrymple, a historian and travel writer, echoed that argument, but also pointed to a broader problem in the Anglo-Saxon publishing culture.
"There's no doubt that English is an increasingly dominant and imperial language," he said. "But even other major European languages find it hard to get an English audience for their work. The English are famously tardy and unreceptive to foreign languages, and it is particularly hard to get American publishing houses to take on translations.
"The great Bengali novelist Sankar has sold more than three million copies, but he got a lot more attention the first time he was published in English, when only 3,000 copies of his book were produced."
Perhaps, then, the answer lies in making literature in translation more widely available. According to the Booktrust, only three per cent of the 200,000 or so books published each year in the UK are in translation. The figure is around 30 per cent in Europe. Although the numbers are bleak, the award-winning translator Daniel Hahn is against getting hung up on them.
"First, we should remember that it's three per cent of a hugely swollen market: three per cent of such a vast number is not inconsiderable," he wrote.
Hahn argues in an essay on the subject that we should focus on increasing readership of foreign language literature, rather than trying to increase the number of foreign writers published.
"Would I like our publishing industry to be more outward looking? Of course I would... But we should be encouraging readers to read more bravely, whatever the language. Instead of bemoaning the paltriness of the three per cent figure, we should be talking passionately about those culture-expanding books that are being published, and how damn good they are."
To that end, the Booktrust runs the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, awarded each year to the best work of fiction published in a foreign language and translated into English. Last year's winner was the French novelist Philippe Claudel for Brodeck's Report, a dream-like fable set in the aftermath of a genocidal war.
It's hard to argue with the intentions behind an enterprise such as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. Nevertheless, there is a fine line between celebrating foreign writers, and separating them from their English-speaking counterparts in a way that makes it harder to read them on their own terms. At Jaipur, Pamuk railed against the tendency to see foreign authors as national representatives, rather than writers.
"I am always resentful and angry of this attempt to narrow me and my capacity to experience humanity," he said. "You are squeezed down, cornered as a writer whose books are considered only the representation of his national voice and a little bit of anthropology."
Perhaps, then, it would be best to forget about differences of nationality and language altogether, and focus, instead, on putting reading at the centre of our culture. Then, surely, more English speaking readers will come to writers in translation in search of that experience that only literature can provide: the silent communion, across time and space, of one human mind with another. A step in that direction is as close as your local bookshop: and you could do worse than start with some Orhan Pamuk.
Updated: September 27, 2011 04:00 AM