Language is one of those barriers that’s almost impossible to penetrate if you are on the outside of it. Because the ignorance of a language (and an appreciation of its many nuances) also serves as a cultural barrier, and end of the day, you just don’t know what you don’t know.
So this piece on the effect of translation gap on foreign publications opened a whole can of worms.
The issue posed here is: there’s a massive loss of great literary works that’s not translated into English, because there’s not enough manpower to assess their qualities, there are translation barriers, there are few and far-in-between PR-ready authors with commendable English skills to go out an promote the hell out of a book with unknown appeal to an American audience.
This is understandable. Take something well known and written in English, Brideshead Revisited, for example, which came in #2 on Guardian’s top TV dramas of all time in Britain. Ironically, it came behind Sopranos, which demonstrates stories centered around universal themes, i.e. family relationships, may have broader appeal than stories along cultural themes.
But this would be a hard sell to an American audience. After all, what do the decline of the English nobility, and Catholicism in a land of Anglicans have to do with Americans?
English literature is probably the most universally translated language out there (this is a guess, but if you have the facts that confirm or refute it, please let me know). Even so, writers successful translated abroad are generally poets, science fiction, or detective/mystery, or specific genre writers (about the war or the Holocaust). Have Norman Mailer, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip Roth, or Ralph Ellison found a receptive foreign audience? Better to stick with James Patterson, and Dan Brown, no?
And amplify this problem across the entire world – the challenges of finding translatable, and relatable American literature, but also those from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and beyond.
Then it is not too harsh to question since its inception in 1901, the the majority of Nobel Prize winners have been Europeans?
In 2008, the academy’s Swedish permanent secretary let it slip:
“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular,” Engdahl decreed. “They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”
Americans are rightly indignant. The surprise is why rest of the world isn’t. Perhaps this seemingly arbitrary honour has already rendered irrelevant in most corners of the world.
Adam Kirsch continues:
But the real scandal of Engdahl’s comments is not that they revealed a secret bias on the part of the Swedish Academy. It is that Engdahl made official what has long been obvious to anyone paying attention: The Nobel committee has no clue about American literature.
Just as an American literary agent admits to having a non-rational, nor replicable process in place to assess the literary and commercial merits of a piece of foreign writing, perhaps it’s time the Swedish academy elders to do the same. We can try all we want, but there’s just too much linguistic and cultural ticks lost in translation.