Eating a Translated Burrito
The source of this somewhat odd post title is Aviya Kushner’s article in the new issue of the Wilson Quaterly. Entitled McCulture Aviya writes about the strange relationship of American readers to other cultures, including the way in which readers resist translations, but love bicultural writers:
It’s not that Americans aren’t interested in the world at all. It’s just that we seem to want someone else to do the heavy lifting required to make a cultural connection. As the Peruvian-born writer Daniel Alarcón observes, Americans would rather read stories by an American about Peru than a Peruvian writer translated into English. “There’s a certain curiosity about the world that’s not matched by a willingness to do the work,” Alarcón said in a phone interview from his home in Oakland, California. “So what happens is that writers of foreign extraction end up writing about the world for Americans.” [. . .]
We don’t have much time, so we want a taste, some fast food to go. And so we read ethnic literature the way we down an ethnic meal. We can get a burrito almost anywhere, but it’s often mildly spiced, adjusted just for us, and wrapped for those in a rush. So we’re eating a translated burrito, and we’re reading a world prepared especially for us. But we don’t believe anything is missing. After all, we eat “ethnic” food, and often.
This is an interesting phenomenon that is definitely prevalent in today’s culture. When Horace Engdahl blasted America for being too isolated, the knee jerk response from American critics was that our literature is an immigrant literature, one that is enlivened by the viewpoints of bicultural writers. Which is absolutely true and commendable, but it is still a bit weird that the hyphenated writer’s novel about Spain sells in the tens of thousands, whereas the Spanish novelist writing is completely ignored. Or, in Aviya’s words:
We prefer to read of a Bosnian immigrant in New York instead of a Bosnian man in Sarajevo, written by a Bosnian. This way, at least we can recognize New York. [. . .]
It is not that Americans lack curiosity of any kind—but that we seem to lack the right kind. Europe is overrun with young American tourists. Unfortunately, these college students tend to pack a dozen countries into a month or less. They often tote guides such as Let’s Go, which highlight the greatest hits and cheapest places and are written by, you guessed it, other American college students. That’s how we seem to read international literature as well. Let’s go, we might say, but let’s go easy. And cheap.
The entire piece is worth reading. And Aviya’s book — And There Was Evening, And There Was Morning — about reading the Bible in English for the first time after a lifetime of reading it in Hebrew sounds pretty interesting as well.