Moser, Mizumura, and Murakami [BTBA]
This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is from judge Kevin Elliott, bookseller at 57th Street Books in Chicago.
Recently, Benjamin Moser, author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector” wrote an op-ed for the New York Times discussing the state and struggle of international literature in English translation. Among the statistics and observations of what it takes to bring great writers of non-English languages to not only America, but the world at large, Moser notes that “Literature is made by a community: present and past, dead and alive,” but cautions against the homogeneity that our English-ruled world could impose upon that very same literature.
The Japanese novelist and critic, Minae Mizumura’s book, The Fall of Language In The Age of English, is half memoir of a writer finding her literary voice through U.S. education and the ultimate decision to practice her art in her native (and dying) Japanese. The other half is a much more academic screed against the very same homogeneity that Moser openly struggles with. To Mizumura, this homogeneity is a present threat that endangers the truths in literature that cannot be translated no matter how hard we work at it. In the shadow of that threat lies her steadfast loyalty to writing not only in her native tongue, but also with a conscious awareness and reverence for the literary traditions of Japan.
To Mizumura, dying languages are worth preserving through literature. To Moser, literature of all languages is worth translating. In fact, works of lost literature are waiting to be discovered.
Both Moser and Mizumura mention the invasive reality of English on the world of literature. In their own separate ways, both argue for the concurrent needs to both preserve and promote regional literatures. It is a delicate balance, to be certain. One actively pursues new translations from the Portuguese. The other consciously writes in her native tongue despite being educated in America. One brings a nearly forgotten voice into English on a wider scale than ever before. The other reinterprets an English classic to reflect the post-war conditions of Japanese tradition in the face of the American led industrial globalized society. It is, however, a society that has led to opportunities of discovering more international writing as well as the decline of the very traditions that Mizumura laments in the wake of popular writers such as Haruki Murakami.
Where, then, does this place the three percent figure that is front and center to the English reading world in relation to works in translation? How does someone like me, who is only fluent in the most dominant of languages (with some understanding of casual kitchen Spanish and a picture-book reading competence in German) become so interested in translated fiction? How do I convince others to pick up a lesser known novel that took more than a year of laborious and patient translation work and give it a chance? Why does it matter?
I spend a lot of time thinking about these questions as not only a bookseller, but as a person in an ever-increasingly connected world.
First, I think it matters exactly because we are living within such prevalent connection. Connections that can seem intimate, but so often result in quick flashes and selfies across our screens . . . gone in less time than it takes for Nicholas Cage to steal a sports car. Literature, for me, has always been about curiosity in other perspectives about the world, whether that is a personal narrative of universal human themes or a plot-driven story that pushes us to think in different ways. In a world where seemingly everyone has access to each other all the time, literature gives us a moment of pause and growth. A pause that doesn’t always present itself to us in a media saturated globalized world.
Convincing other people to take these pauses in others’ experiences of the world—especially from other cultures—often boils down to curiosity, which is a quality I find most readers possess. Though it may make Mizumura’s hair stand on end, I don’t see it as much of a stretch to point out to casual readers that learning how one Japanese individual cleans her apartment (Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up) isn’t that far removed from learning how one Afrikaner woman organizes and makes sense of her life and family history (Karel Schoeman’s This Life). A stretch for some, of course, but you’d be surprised at how many customers in my store don’t realize that one of the most popular books currently featured on daytime talk shows is translated from another language . . . and how much pointing that fact out to them has opened them to the realization that translated works of all kinds can be relevant, interesting, and perhaps even important to them.
My conscious interest in international literature started unexpectedly when the editor of this site, Chad W. Post, reached into the trunk of his car and handed me a strange and little known novel by the British experimental writer, Ann Quin. The book was Tripticks and I was told it was “British and intense and about America.” I doubt Chad remembers the exchange, but I read the book and thought it was like nothing I had read before. There was a beat sensibility to it and a Woolf-like tone, but with a completely different feel and a critical romanticism about America that I found utterly compelling. And for some unknown reason, It stuck in my head that it was British. It wasn’t British like Dickens or Austen or Hardy. It was something new to me. From that point, I remember paying more attention to where authors were from and began consciously seeking out contemporary novels from other countries and cultures.
Despite the rampant spread and saturation of the English language in culture and literature, an English novel about America led me to the wider world of international literature and, in part, to a genuine curiosity in understanding experiences around the world. From a bookselling perspective, I don’t see why a book about cleaning your clutter can’t do the same. Of course, with the popularity of authors like Knausgaard or Murakami among readers these days, leading someone to the next translated novel isn’t often that much of a stretch, but with only three percent of all books published in America being translated, I’m happy to have an entry point for readers available anywhere I can find one.
As for approaching four percent, it may not be something achievable in the near future for books in translation based on scale alone, but I’m seeing small micro publishers sprout up regularly who are dedicating their efforts toward bringing international literature to the English reader. In a way, the larger issues that Moser and Mizumura struggle with and passionately work for aren’t dissimilar from what I aim to do as a bookseller. Every day I work to preserve the importance of taking the time to read books while simultaneously aiming to open people up to discovering the myriad nuances of art and experience.
Over the next year, I’ll be reading through as many of the hundreds of eligible titles for the 2016 BTBA as I can. I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the process. But as much as I’ll be offering my opinions and reactions to the books themselves, I’m also interested in sharing what I’ve seen happening in translation at the bookselling level. From the energetic and passionate publishers I’ve been in communication with to the unique ways that different bookstores work to point out the existence and importance of international lit, there are amazing things happening to bring more readers (and more books) into the three percent realm many of us are eager to grow.