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Saturday, July 24, 2010

European Literature in America

Giorgio de Chirico, The Dream of Tobias, 1917
Cameraphoto Arte, Venice/Art Resource/© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/SIAE, Rome

My friend Lou signaled a great article from The NY Review of Books. It is about European literature and the way it is translated and published in America. You should read the whole enchilada:


I am proposing you some statements from this article, with quick notes:

Only 3 to 5 percent of books published in the US are translations, we are told. Aleksandar Hemon sees this as another manifestation of culturally catastrophic American isolationism; Edith Grossman feels that the resulting incomprehension of foreign cultures has dangerous implications for world peace.

Is it true for the whole world literature or only for Europeans? Also, I think there is an important number of authors with their roots in India and Latin America who write in English, keeping in their books the specifics of their national identities.

The recent wars in the Balkans remind us that familiarity with each other’s literatures has never prevented Europeans from slaughtering one another.

Good point.

Each writer appeals confidently to an international liberal readership at the expense of provincial bigotry and hypocrisy.

Is it because of openness of spirit, or just bowing in front of the masters of the day?

Narrative experimentalism (which invariably undercuts certainties, rather than reinforcing them) has become a literary lingua franca, an international convention.


European writers may be unconcerned whether or not they are published in this or that other European country, or indeed in Chinese or Japanese, but they are all extremely anxious to be published in America, precisely because, as Edith Grossman points out, this gives access to world recognition.

I wouldn't bother if translated in Chinese (but I'm not a writer, either).

Literary translators tend to divide into what one could call originalists and activists. The former honor the original text’s quiddities, and strive to reproduce them as accurately as possible…; the latter are less concerned with literal accuracy than with the transposed musical appeal of the new work. Any decent translator must be a bit of both. A translator’s task as first one of deep reading: to hear the first version of the work as profoundly and completely as possible, struggling to discover the linguistic charge, the structural rhythms, the subtle implications, the complexities of meaning and suggestion in vocabulary and phrasing, and the ambient, cultural inferences and conclusions these tonalities allow us to extrapolate. After which, the translator seeks to re-create…within the alien system of a second language, all the characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities of the work…. And we do this by analogy—that is, by finding comparable, not identical, characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities in the second language.

Originalist or activist? Well, the dilemma stands even when you try to render Don Quixote in Spanish.

Perhaps with the world now so intimately and immediately connected, the only real exoticism we are likely to find is in the past.

That's not true; we are deaf and blind for what's happening around.

When fiction-writing resumed during the Ramesside period (c. 1292–1070 BCE, the setting for Norman Mailer’s huge novel Ancient Evenings), Egyptian writers invented a few more genres, like the war story, the ghost story, and the fairy tale, but mostly pushed magic realism to bizarre lengths.

And so we rediscover the wheel again and again.

If we had understood, that is, that the Bible writers didn’t mean that God really intervened but were only using techniques later perfected by Gabriel García Márquez, not only would we have saved ourselves millennia of religious delirium, but we could also have added some new writers to our literary canon.

Is this an originalist attitude, an activist one, or both?

Paul Klee, The Bavarian Don Giovanni, 1919
Estate of Karl Nierendorf/Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

(A Life in Books)



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