In Alison Flood’s article, “Writers attack ‘overrated’ Anglo-American literature at Jaipur festival,” writer and filmmaker Xiaolu Guo (author of Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers) says, “Our reading habit has been stolen and changed...our reading habit is more Anglo-Saxon, more American...all the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society.” Within the same article, Pulitzer winner Jhumpa Lahiri criticizes the US for its lack of translation in the literary market (a lousy 2% of published books in the US are translations) and claims not to have read any books written in English in two years.
The criticism that contemporary American literature is full of banal writers and that the market lacks proper representation of translated text isn’t new, but it’s something that isn’t discussed enough. What Guo and Lahiri are challenging us to do is to open our minds to what great books can be—to redefine and perhaps create an impact on the current mainstream literary market in US. There should be a higher demand for books in translation from different languages around the globe. Literary translators here in the States and abroad are struggling to get by as the demand for their services is so limited. It is important to translate the works of authors from around the world into the language you and I share. That kind of delivery is sacred and critical in increasing awareness and broadening minds. Unfortunately there are too few publishers seeking to put out contemporary works in translation.
When it comes to translation of words in American literature, however, I take a radical stance: do not offer translated footnotes to non-English words in books. If Lolita can include lines of French and Russian without being accompanied by footnotes, American authors today should be able to do the same thing. Publishers are too concerned with spoonfeeding readers. If in films like Jim Jarmusch’s Down By Law, Roberto Benigni can say his lines in Italian without any English subtitles and we can accept it as a great American film, we can and should accept lines written in different languages in US-published books without the alarmist impulse to attach cross-cultural training wheels to the text.
I read Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being and was disappointed by the amount of English translations that accompanied the transliterated Japanese dialogue throughout, as well as the excessive tendency to explain why this or that happens in Japan—why not just let the context stand on its own? Why assume that the book’s average reader will be someone incapable of inferring things for themselves? Look at the fiercely political work of Gloria Anzaldúa who writes with a multiplicity of English and Spanish dialects. Why must works in East Asian languages offer English translations and contextual clarification whereas the Russian, French, and Italian works can get away with not offering them? It’s a double standard and, in this case, it is the Asian-American writer’s story that is subjected to the extra task of being accommodating. While I appreciated Ozeki’s inclusion of the Japanese dialogue throughout the book, I was not impressed by her excessive explanations of every single nuance throughout. It watered down the novel and distracted me from some of its more beautiful moments with apologetics that submitted to the white-centric preferences in publishing.
Writers, and more importantly, publishers should place more faith in their readers. There is a real willingness on the reader’s part to engage with works outside of their usual habits and comfort zones, and to be challenged by authors who push the boundaries. Publishing more experimental, bold, and unapologetic writers who represent United States as a whole and not just the general “majority” recognized by commercial publishers is equally important. These are my demands of the US literary market.
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Grace Jung is a New York based writer, translator and film producer. Her essays and e-books have been published by Thought Catalog, and her novel Deli Ideology is forthcoming from the same publisher. Her short fiction has been published by The Cortland Review and Molotov Cocktail. Her translation of Lee Cheong-jun's novella Worm Story will be released by Merwin Asia Publishing. She is currently producing a documentary entitled A-Town Boyz. She is a former Fulbright scholar.