A couple of weeks ago on a cold night I walked to the Mercantile Library—for the first time in all these years that I have been living in Manhattan I have to admit—to listen to a discussion about literature in translation, organized by this excellent website.
The space turned out a little bit more intimate than I had expected. Some of the panelists I had met in person; and it is never pleasant to look the actor in the eye. Not for the audience and not for the actor, even when the actor is a panelist who is not playing a role at all. I took a seat in the last row and watched the audience carefully.
Many interesting and sometimes even modestly hopeful things were being said about literature in translation. While listening this question came up: is a novel written in English by a Ghanaian living in Ghana or a Japanese living in Australia or an Irishman living in Cork less foreign to the Americans than let’s say a novel in translation written by a French-speaking Canadian? And what is it that makes literature in translation so peculiar that we need to treat this literature as a kind of animal that is threatened with extinction?
Has it to do with the fact that we treat contemporary novelists first and foremost as representatives of their respective cultures? I know of at least one Israeli novelist who is tired and slightly upset that he is forced to answer political questions all the time instead of questions on his novels, which do not deal with political issues.
Of course there is an old tradition that treats literature itself as something that is on the verge of disappearing. Today I received an invitation to take part in a literature festival in Romania with the title íThe Future of Literature, Literature of the Future.ë I expect a lot of gloom.
But when it comes to literature in translation the doom becomes so much more imminent, almost a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Another issue that didn’t come up was the question if the roles might change in the future.
The US is an empire and behaves like an empire, also when it comes to the question what is foreign. I say this without rancor. I have little patience for anti-Americanism.
But empires come and go, as we know from history.
Maybe in a hundred years from now in Beijing, a discussion will be held about literature in translation and a panelist will ask why is it that we Chinese are so uninterested in the beautiful literature written in the US.