Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 27, 2013

Found in Translation, in Praise of a Plural World (2013), by Linda Jaivin (Quarterly Essay #52)

Found in Translation

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.

Sue at Whispering Gums has reviewed this title too, and so has Bryce at The Echidna and the Fox.

Author: Linda Jaivin
Title: Found in Translation, in Praise of a Plural World (Quarterly Essay No 52, 2013)
Publisher: Black Inc, 2013
ISBN: 9781863956307
Source: Review copy courtesy of Black Inc.


Fishpond: Linda Jaivin on Translation: Quarterly Essay 52

Or direct from the publisher, or any good bookshop or newsagent.


  1. Great post Lisa, very thought provoking. I love international fiction but have to admit I read very little in translation – I must remedy that.


    • Translated books are often available here in Australia, but it’s hard to find in bookshops because it’s not going to be on a separate shelf. It’s not marketed like that. I’ve made most of my finds by following Stu’s blog (the link is above) – he reads and reviews so much that there’s always something to take my fancy. Tara from Book Sexy reads a lot in translation, and so does Tony from Tony’s Reading List, mainly Japanese and German authors.
      But I have to say, that I don’t set out to read translated books. What I do is to take a couple of steps to make sure I know about them (browsing relevant blogs) and then including the ones that appeal to me in my wishlist/TBR shelf. And I keep an eye on two prizes: the Man Asian (which is going to be called something else now that Man has withdrawn sponsorship) and the International Foreign Fiction Prize. I reckon that if the New York Times did that too, their list would be a much better one!


  2. Great post … I hope you’re right about its being influential Lisa … hopefully our blogging it will help spread the word!

    Interestingly, our primary school tried very hard to get a language going … From Indonesian to Japanese to, after my kids left, Italian. The issue always was resources … The will from the community, and we were a defined low socio-economic school, was there. The reason they ended up doing Italian for many years was support from the Italian Embassy and a known skilled teacher. Such a challenge.


    • Yup, it’s resources and support, and if you knew the stats for the number of qualified teachers like me who are *not* teaching a LOTE, you would weep.


      • Oh dear … I guess my son is one too, you’ve reminded me – he did his Dip Ed with LOTE, qualifying him I believe to teach Japanese from primary to early high school (I think he said Grade 9 but that sounds weird. Grade 8 or Grade 10??).


        • That would be Year 9, in Victoria. There’s no career path, you see, and for promotion or permanent placement somewhere you have to have varied experience because schools need flexibility and won’t appoint anyone with a perceived particular specialty. So LOTE teachers have to get out of it as soon as they can, even if they like it. The solution to this is to network same-LOTE schools together and create one promotion position to coordinate them all, but of course that costs money and they won’t do it.
          Even worse, there are almost no full time positions, so primary LOTE teachers end up either working part-time at two, sometimes three schools and not ‘belonging’ at any of them, or their LOTE position is combined with something else that no one wants to do, e.g. 0.3 ESL, 0.2 PE etc. The budget is always so small that they end up subsidising the school by buying resources themselves, and they don’t get any time allowance or funding for language maintenance themselves – there’s almost no professional development for LOTE teachers, and the tax office doesn’t even let you claim the cost of travelling to your LOTE country to keep up the language unless you’re enrolled in some kind of non-existent course. (Their attitude is that you must be enjoying your 10th trip to Bali when really, you’d rather spend your travel dollar going somewhere new).
          All these complaints are well known, but in our fragmented education system where politicians would rather remove every dollar they can to spend on an electorally popular road, there is no prospect of anything changing any time soon.
          Unless they let me run the country for five minutes or so, of course….


          • I think that’s pretty similar here too Lisa – at least at the primary level – so they rely on women who are happy to work part-time perhaps because of kids. (At least that’s how it was when I was on school boards – the LOTE teacher as you say would be .2 or .3. For some people at some stages in their career that works well but it doesn’t/shouldn’t work as a systemic thing does it.)


  3. Call me old (yes!) but in some ways the rot set in when you no longer needed a second language to matriculate and enter Uni. We all had to have some smattering of something. On the other hand, I do have a friend who’s been teaching Chinese at a Brisbane high school for ages – and they have been so successful that once, when visiting Beijing as she does every year with school kids, the Australian consul asked why so many of their staff seemed to come from her high school! So not all is lost.
    The best comment I heard on translation was from a prize winning translater of Don Quixote (whose name I’m ashamed to have forgotten). When people say that she must know Spanish really well she always replies, “No. It’s English I have to know well.”


  4. Brilliant review, Lisa! This looks like such a wonderful book! I remember you mentioning Linda Jaivin before, when you told me about her talk that you attended. It is wonderful to know that her essay in translation has been published now. I would love to read it. I want to write a long comment here, but I will try to make it not longer than it needs to be :)

    On the NYT list, I have long felt that any American list contains mostly American and some British books. Books from other languages are mostly absent. When I talk with my American friends about their favourite European authors and books, the standard names normally pop out – ‘Madame Bovary’ by Gustave Flaubert, ‘Les Miserables’ by Victor Hugo, maybe ‘The Three Musketeers’ by Alexandre Dumas, maybe Emile Zola’s ‘Germinal’, the three Russian writers Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Anton Chekhov (Ivan Turgenev, their contemporary, was more famous and was more acclaimed in his lifetime than these three, but he is often ignored today – not just by American readers but by international readers worldwide. Gogol, Lermontov and Pushkin are mostly ignored). German books are mostly absent from that list (maybe Thomas Mann’s ‘Death in Venice’ and one of Hermann Hesse’s books might be there) and when I mention Umberto Eco, most friends haven’t heard of him. These days though there seems to be some kind of renaissance in reading French literature, as I have seen American readers try to read some of the OuLiPo authors, especially Georges Perec, and Marguerite Duras has always been popular among women readers with a literature background and the recent success of Muriel Barbery’s ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ has turned the spotlight a little bit on French literature for American readers. Even when I discuss British books and writers, many of my American friends know only about Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Most haven’t heard of George Eliot and Thomas Hardy. It is sad because Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ and Hardy’s ‘Tess of the d’Urbervilles’ and ‘Jude the Obscure’ are three of the greatest novels in English. But i wouldn’t blame American readers too much for that. I think it is a question of the availability of the concerned book and the way it is promoted in the school and the university system.

    It was nice to know about lingua franca, the bridge languages. It was interesting to read about your thoughts on what Linda Jaivin says on whether poetry can be translated well. I read poetry occasionally and though I have been brought up on English and Tamil poetry since my school days, my own heart tends to Persian poetry (because of the beautiful play of words and the beautiful thoughts), Urdu poetry (because it seems close to Persian poetry), modern Tamil poetry (maybe because it is my own language), Chinese love poetry (very beautiful) and some Latin American poetry (especially Pablo Neruda). It is difficult for me to tell why I connect well with poetry from some languages more than with those of others. And except for Tamil and English poetry, I read all of them in translation.

    Your comment – “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” – made me remember Thomas Macaulay’s point of view on oriental literature – “I have no knowledge of either Sanskrit or Arabic. But I have done what I could to form a correct estimate of their value. I have read translations of the most celebrated Arabic and Sanskrit works. I have conversed both here and at home with men distinguished b their proficiency in the Eastern tongues. I am quite ready to take the Oriental learning at the valuation of the Orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” It is a much quoted passage here, to denounce Macaulay :) Though I love Macaulay’s prose and his essays and his works on history, I think he got it wrong here. I totally agree with your and Linda Jaivin’s thoughts that there is much to be learnt from the literature of new languages and from knowing new languages. It was wonderful to read about your experience with the Indonesian-Malay woman on the top of the Eiffel tower.

    On the Russian subway system, I am happy to say that I learnt how to read Russian (went to Russian language school for a couple of years) and when I went to Russian, I could read the metro station names :)

    On the Chinese ban on books, have you seen the movie / read the book ‘Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress’? It is a story of the Cultural Revolution on how two city boys are moved to a village to live with villagers and how they teach the locals about Balzac and make them accept Balzac by telling them that Balzac is Chinese :) It is a beautiful story on how literature can bridge cultures.

    One of my disappointments these days on Chinese literature is that most of the Chinese books which are famous these days are those written by Chinese writers living abroad and mostly on topics related to the Cultural Revolution or the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government in the past few decades. There is a lot of beautiful Chinese literature read by the Chinese themselves – for example the four great epics (‘Three Kingdoms’, ‘Outlaws of the Marsh’, ‘Journey to the West’, ‘The Dream of Red Mansions’), the novels of Lu Xun and Ba Jin, the kungfu novels by Jin Yong (also called as Louis Cha). These books are all wonderful and beautifully depict Chinese culture, but they are difficult to get outside China and are not more widely known. Ba Jin’s novels are extremely difficult to get in translation, which is sad, because Chinese readers regard him as the greatest Chinese author of the 20th century. I hope translations of these works will come out in English. Maybe Linda Jaivin will translate them :)

    Thanks for this wonderful post, Lisa! It made me think and it made my day :)


    • Well, what I hope for, is that the open-mindedness that I see online will encourage publishers worldwide to capitalise on it. The more we talk about the books we read, and the ones we want to read online, the more likely it is that publishers will realise that there is a market for more translations. What may seem like a niche at the moment may grow, if my experience is anything to go by … the more I read from outside the dominant markets, the more I want. It’s just so interesting!
      Re the Chinese, yes, almost everything I’ve read is by dissidents or émigrés. I’ve looked up the ones you mention on the Book Depository website, and they appear to have a couple of titles available – it does seem odd that no one has capitalised on the interest in China to make these authors more available. But it is getting better, I am sure of it!


  5. […] time as Indonesia is becoming a regional power with a strong democracy and a fast-growing economy. Lisa at ANZ Litlovers, a former teacher of Indonesian, has posted an impassioned review of Jaivin’s essay and described […]


  6. […] If you want compelling evidence that confirms Linda Jaivin’s assessment of the merits of machine translation, visit the GoodReads reviews of this book, copy and paste the […]


  7. I will duck for cover here, but one of the things I have increasingly noticed about Australia now that I haven’t lived there for 15 years is the provincialism and a complete lack of awareness/ignorance about other cultures — their customs, politics, history etc — which I find so surprising given the propensity of Australians to travel. Which makes me wonder when these people travel are they actually engaging when the places/people they meet or merely being tourists? (I remember going to Belfast with a small group of backpackers in 1999 — just two years after the peace process — and the utter lack of respect/understanding of The Troubles by the people I was travelling with left me embarrassed and ashamed. In fact, I actually apologised to our mini bus driver after two girls harangued him about telling them which “side” he was on, Catholic or Protestant, after he’d made it quite clear from the start he wasn’t going to tell us this because he didn’t want us to think he had an agenda to push.)

    Of course, I say all this realising I’m not an expert on other cultures and that the only language I can speak is English. When I was at secondary school in the 1980s it was not compulsory to learn a language and the only one on offer at my rural high school was French. This clashed with the chemistry classes I took, so I never did get to learn another language. I did try to teach myself Spanish when I was about 20 but didn’t get much further than muchas gracias!


  8. I’d be very interested to see some international research about this. I suspect that modern mass media narrows the culture in many places and that whereas some of us have found that social media has widened horizons, for others it only constricts them further.
    I wonder too about the travel. I hang out with inveterate travellers who love to learn about the culture they’re visiting and relish the opportunity to interact with the locals: conversation at our NYE feast was dominated by talk of trips taken with Academy Travel and plans for more. (There are always plans for more, it’s what keeps us sane.) But I know others who come back utterly unchanged from package tours (a day here, a day there, 25 minutes in the Louvre so you can see the Mona Lisa). After the initial ‘we went here, we went there’ conversations, it all fizzles out. It’s as if they never went. Whereas I feel that I come back from my trips with my attitudes and ideas changed, every time.


  9. […] two of them in my Non-fiction Best Books of 2016 but my all-time favourite from this series is Linda Jaivin’s Found in Translation, in praise of a plural world (QE #52) because she makes such a powerful case for reading widely from books in translation.  And this is a […]


  10. Superb review Lisa. I grabbed this as a freebie in the local neighbourhood library yesterday and have read it this morning. My GR review was never going to be of much use as I am not that sure I could ever articulate the issues raised in such an erudite manner as your good self, so with that I have taken the liberty of tagging your GR review into mine.


    • Thank you for your generous comment!
      That was a lucky find, eh?


      • I have a few of these neighbourhood libraries around and are I always rotate my daily walks to suit. 90% of the books are not for me, but I get the occasional gem. I am a big supporter of these as they bring books to those that may not be able to afford them. I also swap 2 or 3 for one, I am not prone to keep my books once read, I realise I am an outsider with this.


        • I have a neighbourhood library myself, and there are a couple more near me, though as you say, the pickings can be lean.
          In my review policy I reserve the right to take review copies to the Op Shop, and I used to recycle books I knew I would never read again, (or unsolicited ones from publishers that I was never going to read at all). It makes a little money for charity and it makes books affordable for people on low incomes.
          When the Op Shops were closed during the months of Lockdown, a kindly neighbour built the Little Library for me from scrap materials. There is a lady in a wheelchair from the residential home round the corner who loves choosing from the books, which pleases me because I know she would struggle to get to a library or a bookshop. My local library runs a book delivery service for people at home, but there is something nice about being able to choose your own.
          I was a bit startled to see on Twitter the other day, a thread about free review copies from neighbourhood little libraries being advertised on eBay… I hope none of my nice neighbours would ever do such a thing with the near new and sometimes unread copies in my Little Library, but I have started marking them inside on the front cover just as a precaution.

          Liked by 1 person

          • On the point you make about on selling, I am aware that some books that I have do have value, especially history books, even if “only” around the $20 mark. With them if I move them on, they go to Lifeline for bookfest. Mind you, what does one do with say The World Repair Video Game by David Ireland that I have seen for sale at over $250 a copy.


            • That’s a treasure. I was lent the copy that I reviewed and then I passed it on because it was a limited edition print run and was out of print by then and nobody could buy it.
              If I had a copy now, I’d be torn. I’d want to keep it along with my other treasures, but I don’t collect Ireland’s books… so I’d also feel that I should sell it to a reputable specialist bookshop like Grants or Kay Craddock or Peter Arnold so that other serious readers/collectors could access a copy.

              Liked by 1 person

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