I had an interesting exchange at GoodReads recently: someone posted a link to the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2013 list and I commented with dismay that there were only three novels in translation:
- two from Europe, The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett; and The Infatuations by Javier Marías, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa; and
- one from Colombia, The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez, translated by Anne McLean.
My virtual friend, an American, responded by saying that she didn’t care where books came from; she just wanted to know which the best ones were. Her assumption was that of fifty novels purporting to be the most notable of the year, it was not odd that 47 of them were written in English, and my assumption was that there should surely have been something notable originating perhaps from China or some other Asian country; or from countries with great literary traditions and a flourishing publishing industry such as France, Germany or Russia, not to mention the wealth of newly published translated novels from all over the world that we see on Stu’s blog, Winston’s Dad …
So when I picked up the latest Quarterly Essay, Found in Translation, in Praise of a Plural World, I wasn’t surprised to see Linda Jaivin discussing the provincialism that I had noticed on display at the NYT:
Andre Dubus III, author of House of Sand and Fog, laments how provincial the US has become in recent years, noting that most of his countrymen don’t hold passports and can’t even locate Afghanistan on a map: “we have never been less isolationist in the variety of goods and services we consume from around the world, and never have we been more ignorant of the people who produce them.” He describes the situation as “fertile territory” for misunderstanding, conflict and war. Edith Grossman, quoting Dubus, also warns of the growth of “an increasingly intense jingoistic parochialism” in the US that she describes as “the kind of attitude that leads certain people who should know better to believe that their nation and their language are situated, by a kind of divine right, at the centre of the universe.” This “transforms everyone else in the world into benighted barbarians whose cultures are unimportant and whose languages are insignificant.” She cites a bumper sticker that perfectly encapsulates the simultaneously self-congratulatory and self-defeating idiocy of such an outlook: “If English Was Good Enough For Jesus, It’s Good Enough For Me.” (p. 25)
Well, I’m not in a position to know whether these Americans are being a bit harsh on their countrymen or not, but I did expect better of the NYT. Jaivin, however, then goes on to demolish any smug assumptions we might have about multilingualism in Australia. As a former teacher of Indonesian and a Past-President of VILTA (the Victorian Indonesian Language Teachers Association), I was only too well aware that government policies, reports and recommendations (67 over the last 40 years, says Jaivin), have not shifted the abysmal rate of language learning in this country; in fact it has markedly declined. My colleagues and I battled outright hostility, inadequate funding and shameful neglect from regional authorities, school administrations and local school communities whose attitude was that there was no value to be had from learning about other cultures by learning their languages.
I was lucky. I grew up in an English-speaking household where my parents spoke French when they didn’t want us to know what they were talking about, and they switched to German when our School French was good enough to understand their conversations. I’m not now fluent in anything though I studied Indonesian at tertiary level, (including a spell at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta), but I have enough French, Italian and Spanish to get by in Europe, with a smattering of Russian as well. And as you know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I read widely in translation (36 titles this year, see the Translated Books tag in the tag cloud.) So yes, for me, Jaivin is preaching to the converted when she writes:
It would seem self-evident that there are enormous benefits – personal, cultural and political – to knowing as much as possible about the other people and cultures who share this fragile planet and how to speak with them about our common humanity and our common problems. This is particularly true about the countries in the region with whom we have close economic ties and common interests. (p. 26)
But the value of this essay is in the powerful arguments that Jaivin uses to sway those who think otherwise, those who assume that English is the universal language, the only one you need to know. She discusses the importance of knowing cultural mores for international relations and the global economy, and she addresses legitimate issues about whether or not poetry can be translated, and about the effects of a mediator between the original and the translation. Her expertise as a translator of Chinese makes her uniquely qualified to discuss Asian issues in particular. Her anecdotes about misunderstandings and confusions are droll, and she writes with such passion and humour that few could fail to be convinced…
If you want to learn about China (as surely we all must) what could be more easy and enjoyable than reading a good Chinese novel, says Jaivin? I can vouch for that. Try Lenin’s Kisses, by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas: as I said in my review early this year, rarely has learning history been as enjoyable; this is a beaut novel. Immensely readable, with unforgettable characters. Less demanding, but revealing about the impact of the Cultural Revolution is Under the Hawthorn Tree by Ai Mi, translated by Anna Holmwood. Before my trip to Russia in 2012, I learned far more about Russian history and culture from its novelists than I did from either of the two Anglo-orientated histories that I read. Read Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (translated by Robert Chapman) and Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad and see which one shows you why Stalingrad is a hero City in Russia and why we were told by a 20-something Muscovite that her visit there was a an emotional pilgrimage which made her cry.
What could be more valuable than the interchange of ideas which occurs when books are translated in and out of diverse languages? Western Civilisation, Jaivin reminds us, emerged from Greek philosophy, mythology and poetry which was translated by the Roman orator Cicero, which was then translated again during the Renaissance. Christianity became a people’s religion when Martin Luther translated it into the vernacular, and it was the translator of the King James Bible, St Jerome who said, “translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light.” (p.5) Shakespeare drew on a translation of an Italian Romeo and Juliet which itself was derived from the Latin poet Ovid’s Graeco-Roman Metamorphoses. And so on.
I was interested to read what Jaivin has to say about ‘vehicular’ languages, (also called lingua franca, bridge or working languages), and was pleased to see that my languages are among them. These are the languages that are spoken by non-native speakers as a means of communication when there is no shared mother-tongue. Hindi (a language I’d love to learn) is a vehicular language in India; other vehicular languages are Mandarin Chinese, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Swahili, and less well-known ones such as Guinea-Biassau Creole. (See the long list at Wikipedia!) My father learned German because it was the lingua franca among scientists for most of the 20th century; Italian is a lingua franca among musicians. Yiddish bonded Holocaust survivors from many different countries when they emigrated to places like America and Australia; Spanish is the most-common vehicular language used in commerce and trade after English. Jaivin doesn’t mention Indonesian which unites speakers of 700 different languages and helps one get by with Malay: I once had a conversation in Indonesian-Malay at the top of the Eiffel Tower where a woman terrified by heights was astonished to have someone of European appearance understand and comfort her. Knowing one or two of these languages is such a bonus when travelling: people are so much more friendly and helpful, and I defy anyone to use the Russian subway system without being able to read their alphabet!
Reading in translation widens horizons – that’s why it’s so often banned in totalitarian states in case it contaminates the reader with seditious ideas … but hey! the Chinese have relaxed their ban on reading translations of SF because they’ve discovered that the innovative geeks of Silicon Valley all read it!
What really pleased me about this essay is its reach: the Quarterly Essay is a high-profile publication in Australia and because of its diverse and interesting topics it’s widely read by a cross-section of the population. By commissioning this essay Black Inc has asserted the importance of multilingualism and translation and because of Jaivin’s lively style it will be read and disseminated widely. It will be influential in a way that all those worthy reports and policy documents never were.
About the Author
I had the pleasure of hearing and meeting Linda Jaivin at the AALITRA Symposium on Translation but the following comes from the Quarterly Essay website.
Linda Jaivin is the author of novels, stories, plays and essays. Her books include the China memoir The Monkey and the Dragon and the novels Eat Me and A Most Immoral Woman. In 1992 she co-edited the acclaimed anthology of translations New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices. She has also subtitled many films, including Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine, Zhang Yimou’s Hero and Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmaster.
Author: Linda Jaivin
Title: Found in Translation, in Praise of a Plural World (Quarterly Essay No 52, 2013)
Publisher: Black Inc, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Black Inc.
Or direct from the publisher, or any good bookshop or newsagent.