Should Americans Read More Literature in Translation?

Should Americans read more world literature to rip away the blinders we so often wear when it comes to those who are "not like us"? "Yes" is the quick answer, the answer that salves our collective conscience, but it is that word should that has begun to bother me. Should has not gathered as many dedicated readers of works in translation as, well, as it should have. The proof is in the numbers.

In the April 23 edition of the New York Times, an article by Dinitia Smith on PEN World Voices: The New York Festival of International Literature, revealed an unsurprising but nonetheless distressing fact: "Andrew Grabois, the senior director of the R. R. Bowker company, which keeps track of publishing industry figures, said this week that of the 185,000 books printed in English in the United States in 2004, only 874 were adult literature in translation. [Salman] Rushdie called the low number of translated books 'shocking.'"

Shocking? Yes again. And yet, what am I, as a bookseller who has long conversations with American readers every day, doing about it? Not enough, obviously, but what really interests me here is less an offering of mea culpas than the suggestion that we move beyond the concept of literature in translation being "good for you" to the much more enticing prospect of literature in translation being an endless series of great reads.

I am neither a scholar nor an expert on literature in translation. I am a writer. I am a reader. I am a bookseller. I read all kinds of books, and some happen to be translated. When I read translations, I do so for the same reason I read anything. I am looking for insight, for pleasure, for pain, for beauty, for humanity, for an irresistible narrative voice, for everything I demand of every book that I open. I am looking, in essence, for a great read. And I've come to believe, gradually and perhaps reluctantly, that our basic approach to enticing general readers to visit foreign literary landscapes is flawed.

For example, a few years ago I read a new edition of The Unknown Masterpiece, Balzac's extraordinary story about an artist, Frenhofer, who pushes himself to the creative threshold where inspiration may become madness. This edition also contains the story "Gambara," in which a composer faces a similar creative dilemma, having in his mind elevated his music to unprecedented creative heights while his audience hears only a cacophony. Although I've found dozens of readers for this slender volume, I have always recommended it as a great read rather than as a portrait of another time and culture filtered through the perspective of a translator.

Perhaps I'm deceiving my customers. Perhaps I should engage them in a serious discussion about the art of translation and the duty of American readers to expand their horizons; push them to take a stand. I don't think so. Crossing borders, even eliminating borders, is undeniably the point here, but it is also beside the point. For the majority of readers I speak with, finding a good book is the priority, not whether a translated work is the original object or a faded copy; and definitely not whether they should read a certain work because it was written by a foreign author.

In the thirteen years that I have been a bookseller, I have seldom encountered a reader who turned away from my recommendation because it was a translated work. When compared to the number of customers who "never read short stories," those who decline to buy translated work because it is not in its language of origin are miniscule in number. For the books that do manage to succeed, the fact that they are translated seldom comes up. Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind is currently number three on the Booksense bestseller list, and when Orhan Pamuk's Snow appears soon in paperback, it will undoubtedly meet with equal success. I've spoken with many, many readers about these works, and what we talk about is the story.

Sándor Márai's Embers met with this kind of success a couple of years ago. Embers appeals to a general American audience because it is a haunting tale, beautifully told. Several reading groups in the area have chosen this title for discussion. A story of friendship and love gone horribly awry and of lives wasted, it is universal in theme and multileveled, for layered within this classic romance is commentary upon militarism vs. artistic sensibility, privilege vs. poverty, friendship vs. obligation, and love vs. betrayal. That's a powerful package in any language.

It is not hard to find readers for these books. So why then are so few works in translation published in this country? How did these few break through the invisible, or not so invisible, international barrier when so many other world authors haven't been so fortunate?

How, for example, has Italo Svevo's Zeno's Conscience, one of the funniest and most mischievous novels I have ever read, not emerged from the mist? I've sold many copies of William Weaver's recent translation simply by offering the basic information that the novel is essentially the writings of an unconscionable liar and con artist whose psychiatrist suggests he put his past down on paper. Says Zeno: "The doctor puts too much faith also in those damned confessions of mine, which he won't return to me so I can revise them. A confession in writing is always a lie." I can show someone that passage and they're hooked.

W.G. Sebald's work is the antonym to Svevo's impishness. It has found its audience in recent years, but this is still a much smaller readership than the work deserves. In Sebald's world, reality seems oppressively immediate, yet just out of reach, as if we were looking at something very close through the wrong end of a telescope. His characters often find themselves observing their surroundings from the elevated perspective of high windows, balconies, or hilltops. The borders in Sebald's work are self-imposed-made of time and memory and regret-but stronger than any the outside world might construct.

I recommend the present as well as the past. I offer my customers Haruki Murakami's neon intensity and Yasunari Kawabata's elegant poignancy as he evokes, with profound detachment, a lost Japan. I offer them Vladimir Makanin's Escape Hatch, which depicts surreal contemporary environments in which protagonists adopt gulag-style survival strategies, as well as One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in which, ironically, Ivan survives a horribly "good day" in the camp by employing an attitude that echoes sharply four decades later when Makanin writes: "[F]or it is precisely those who have scattered, those who have become like specks of dust, who have the greatest chance to survive and emerge unscathed."

Answers to tough questions are never simple, and the answer to the question, "Why don't Americans read world literature?" is one of the toughest. There are answers, however, and one of the best is a single bookseller selling a great book to an enthusiastic reader. Another answer is this superb web site, Words Without Borders. A more recent answer is a promotional effort that will appear in several independent bookstores nationwide during May. Called "Reading the World," this in-store display project will focus upon increasing public awareness of the pleasures and possibilities inherent in reading literature in translation. While "Reading the World" will initially focus upon twenty books from five publishers of varying size (Archipelago Books, Dalkey Archive Press, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, Knopf, and New Directions), all with established commitments to the art of translation, there really is no limit to the ways in which the industry at all levels (booksellers, publishers, media online and off) might contribute to the expansion of this project so that it truly encompasses the world of literature.

"Reading the World" will, we hope, attract attention to some of the brilliant words beyond our borders. In our bookstore, I plan to supplement our "Reading the World" exhibit with complementary displays representing the sheer variety and vitality of the amazing literature currently available to American readers with a sense of adventure. If only 874 of the 185,000 books printed in English in the U.S. last year were translated works, consider for a moment the extremely high level of quality that number 874 represents. Consider, alternatively, what percentage of the other 184,126 titles measure up.

There are books on the "Reading the World" list that I have read, reread, and recommended enthusiastically for years. Sebald's Rings of Saturn was the first of his works I stumbled across and it was a book that altered my perception of the world. That is quite an accomplishment for a couple of hundred sheets of paper. I can say the same thing about One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which I first read in the early 1970s and which I have kept within arm's reach on my desk ever since. How priceless to have such books in one's life.

I want to reread the books on the "Reading the World" list that I've read, but much too long ago, like Heart So White by Javier Marías, Lorca's Collected Poems, and Rilke's Duino Elegies.

Most of all, however, I want to read the others, to cross the borders I haven't crossed before.

Last night I read the first three stories in Bacacay by Witold Gombrowicz, and today I'm still troubled by the narrator of "Lawyer Kraykowski's Dancer," a seemingly ordinary man whose chance public confrontation with another man at an operetta performance soon devolves into a complex predator and prey scenario with its own operatic excesses.

Never known as a one-book man, I'm also reading Three Trapped Tigers by G. Cabrera Infante, which opens with a ringmaster's flourish ("Showtime! Señoras y señores. Ladies and gentleman. And a very good evening to you all.") and hasn't let me stop for breath yet in its brilliant evocation of Havana's cabaret scene before Castro.

And I just finished Thank You for Not Reading, Dubravka Ugresic's stinging and irresistible take on the world of books. "I don't know why, but the rules of market-oriented literary culture remind me of good old socialist realism," she writes in a very funny essay on the surprising family resemblances between the two. Dubravka on self-help books: "And a bright personal future is at the same time a bright collective future, as Oprah Winfrey unambiguously suggests to her impressive world audience."

In May, and certainly beyond May, I will read the world: Lenz by Georg Büchner, Education by Stone by João Cabral de Melo Neto, A Dream of Polar Fog by Yuri Rytkheu, Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, Chinese Letter by Svetislav Basara, The Vagabond by Colette, Embroideries by Marjane Satrapi, The Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida, By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño ... .

It is not a list. It's a pleasure. May will be an exciting month, but it will not be an island briefly occupied and soon deserted. So many great writers old and new, so much to read, so much to talk about. The conversation has been going on for a long time, and yet it is also just beginning.