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Just 2% 'In Translation'

In Translation

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1balzac
Nov 16, 2007, 10:54am Top

An interesting article from the Guardian about the lack of publicity/ interest in non-English and translated works:
http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,,2212304,00.html

"In Germany 13% of books are translations. In France it's 27%, in Spain 28%, in Turkey 40% and in Slovenia 70%, but in Britain and America the best estimates suggest that the fraction of books on the shelves which started off in another language is somewhere around two per cent."

Shocking!!

2ringman
Nov 16, 2007, 12:11pm Top

My guess is that of those 2% very few are recent books.

Looking at the top non english books on LT the first is One hundred years of solitude at number 23, from 1967. Of the other 11 in the top 100 books only The Alchemist is more recent (1988).

3prosfilaes
Nov 16, 2007, 10:09pm Top

I'd also have to express some shock about 70% of Slovenian and 40% of Turkish books being translations. Perhaps as Slovenian only has a couple million speakers, 70% isn't high; but Turkish has 50-90 million speakers and should be able to create a strong national/linguistic culture.

I also find Germany, France and Spain interesting. Why is Germany is low? Looking at how high the number of works translated in Spain is, I wonder if the Spanish American works that she was complaining are hard to sell in English are equally hard to sell in Spain.

Yes, 2% is low; on the other hand, English has more native speakers than any other languages except for Mandarin and Spanish (according to the Ethnologue) and more speakers, native and secondary, then any other in the world. The nations that do natively speak English are among the richest literary power-houses of the world; of course the number of translations is going to be low.

I wish we had more than a tiny sampling of numbers; it would answer some questions I have. Is Slovenian high or low on translations for a language with only two million speakers? How do countries like Russia and China, notoriously culturally isolated, compare to Britain and America? I also think it would be important to look at the number of foreign-language books on the shelves; a low translation count may look a lot different if they're selling hordes of books in English and French than if they only sell in the local language. Also, how local are the translations; are they translating the neighbor's works, or are these translations from languages and cultures half-way across the globe?

I find the article, or at least Allen, interprets the facts in an anti-English manner. "Ninety-six per cent of the world's languages are spoken by just four per cent of the world's population" is entirely true*, but I fail to see the connection to "there's even a danger that the dominance of English-language publishing is putting other languages and literary cultures at risk." That remaining four percent of languages amounts to 200 languages, and anyone who does not know one of those 200 languages is hopelessly cut off from the world**, without access to world literature or modern knowledge or communication with the outside world. They don't not write in Lakota because of the English publishing culture; they don't write in Lakota because they want to communicate with other people, and can't afford to hire a full-time translator.

* Or rather, it accords with what I know. I didn't check the exact numbers.

** Slightly hyperbolic; I suspect Estonian, for one, has a decent translation base of world literature and scientific and historical knowledge. However, quite a few of those 200 languages, especially in Africa and India, probably don't have a decent translation base, as the educated in those countries speak French or English or Hindi or Bengali.

"The combination of financial and linguistic muscle that English wields puts writers in other languages under enormous pressure ... Allen cites the example of Vassilis Alexakis, the winner of this year's Académie Française grand prix du roman, who writes in French rather than his native Greek." strikes me as another non-sequitur. It's a perfect example of why it's not English's fault; despite the fact that the French translate at the twice the rate of the Germans and 14 times as much as the English, he still chose French, a prestigious world language over Modern Greek, the language of a small Balkan country.

4philosojerk
Nov 16, 2007, 11:43pm Top

I'm not surprised that there are so few translations-into-English available in the states. From professional experience, trying to get my hands on English translations of certain philosophy books from France and elsewhere on the continent is consistently a frustrating and fruitless endeavor...

5balzac
Nov 20, 2007, 9:50am Top

A bit of a follow up to the previous Guardian article:

http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,,2214117,00.html

""Why," a German writer complained at a conference last year, "will people all over the world read about divorce in New Jersey, while almost no one in the English-speaking world seems to have the faintest interest in reading about divorce in Bonn or Haifa or Seville?" Several writers of English have proposed a facile, triumphalist answer to this question, happily attributing the global dominance of the English language to their own prowess - which is a bit like murdering your competitors to achieve a monopoly and then gloating over the vast superiority of your product."

6KatieWallace
Jan 6, 2008, 7:17pm Top

this might offend some people, but I think for this discussion it is important to consider the relative literary traditions in different countries. To put it simply, some cultures are more literary than others and England and America both happen to have particullarly rich literary traditions. Obviously, this probably not the main factor, but its an interesting one.

7LolaWalser
Jan 6, 2008, 9:59pm Top

#6

And just how are you gauging "relative literary traditions", seeing how few foreign works get translated into English?

8Existanai
Edited: Jan 6, 2008, 11:56pm Top

To fall back on a variation of that overused (and somewhat offensive) analogy - defending the variety and importance of non-English literature is a bit like describing music to someone who's never heard any.

Some of the comments in this thread are so... depressing.

All writing - all literature, philosophy, history and so on - originated in and was carried out in a language other than English for many hundreds if not thousands of years (if you want to include the most rudimentary writing), before English came about.

Let's do what most people usually do and stick to a Eurocentric point of view, to simplify things, and forget for a while that places like China, Japan, India and so on have ever had any literary traditions for the many centuries their civilizations have been around.

Even within Europe, the majority of really important writers of the so-called 'modern era' - starting from the Renaissance on - have written in a language other than English. In fact, until about the 18th century, most wrote in Latin.

If you want to talk about late modernity, from around 1800 on, when national languages started to become prominent, and English started to become a shared colonial legacy, the majority of important writers still... wrote in a language other than English. Try to look up the various non-English European literatures in any encyclopedia.

And if you want to talk about the first half of the 20th century in Europe alone, and stick to English, French and German alone - the era of, say, Kafka, Mann, Proust, Musil, Joyce, Gide, not to mention hundreds of others - then the majority of canonical writers still... wrote in a language other than English.

This is of course ignoring the incredible canvas of major Russian, Italian, Spanish-language, Scandinavian, Czech etc. etc. writers who were equally notable in terms of their talent, influence, importance in literary history and so on.

And to return to our initial assumption, this is of course assuming that countries like Japan - which produced the first 'real' long novel way back in the 12th century and whose 20th century writers like Soseki, Abe, Mishima, Oe, Tanizaki, Kawabata etc. are among the best of their generations (two in that list are Nobel laureates, and deserving of the associated respect) - or China, which has had some three uninterrupted millenia of a deep and diverse philosophical, historical and literary culture - including genres like erotica - didn't produce anything worth noting.

It is sad enough that I need to browse common paperbacks in foreign-language bookstores to discover important literary figures long unavailable in English. It is sad enough that people usually restricted to English, like myself, only discover hordes of great writers like the Hungarian Antal Szerb some 60 years after their death, and on the recommendation of others, not because they are promoted on every blog, magazine and talk show's list as your "must read of the year/decade/century/human civilization." It is sad enough that their books, once translated, are rarely seen if not hard to find, and we pay silly prices to find one of the rare copies of their translated books in existence, because they are swamped out in your typical bookshop by fifteen shelves of Stephen King, Danielle Steel and company. It is sad that once we've come to know such writers, other works of theirs or works by their respective favourite writers or literary peers remain inaccessible and untranslated - so that we're not only deprived of judgement, but even the simple ability to try them out. It is depressing enough that publishers of all stripes, when forced to choose between a literary work of quality and a forgettable bestseller by a witless hack, will choose the latter to recoup operating costs, and will continue publishing as much crapola of exactly the same kind as they can, to continue seeing profits; much of the same crapola coming from English-speaking countries, due to the relative dearth (until recently) of a nauseatingly-dumbed-down, mass-hysterical-commercial culture in other countries. It's depressing that this has an exponentially degrading effect on notable literature, of any kind, in any language. It's sad that - for all of these reasons and more - I sometimes discover award-winning, English language writers I'd never heard of in foreign bookstores - because their books, being too literary and thus commercially unfeasible, are almost never seen on an Anglo-American bookstore shelf.

You know the bottom has been reached when people are not only missing out, but don't even know that they're missing out - and to hear bold statements or rationalizations that English-language readers have a richer literary tradition to explore is just... pitiful.

9Existanai
Jan 7, 2008, 12:04am Top

I am, of course, completely sidestepping the problem of translation itself - i.e. whether the value of a literary work is ever fully transmitted once it is presented in a different language, to a different culture.

10prosfilaes
Jan 7, 2008, 12:31am Top

Existanai, I'm sure that describing our favorite authors as "witless hack"s will get all of us to jump up and start reading your favorite authors, right away.

There's a reason why Oblomov sits, barely started, on my to-be-read shelf, and I would jump at any book by JK Rowling or Jeff Grubb and probably finish it the day after I got it. Most of your "literary works of quality" don't do a darn thing for me and a lot of other people, who read for fun. Don't tell me what I should and shouldn't enjoy; I know what I do and don't enjoy.

11Existanai
Edited: Jan 7, 2008, 3:23am Top

I came back to delete my post during a moment of clarity, when I realized that no one is interested in my opinions and I have little right to moralize given that I've hardly read most of what I own. I guess it's too late for that now, but I'm a little puzzled because I don't see how reply #10 is any kind of argument against what I wrote.

Prosfilaes, I was hardly telling you or anyone else what to read, or what to "enjoy". What bothered me in some posts above is the implicit assumption that English readers are not missing much if they don't read translated works. To counter the enormous stupidity of this assumption, I tried stating a few rudimentary facts about non-English-language literature, so that English-only readers might get a clue about how insulated they are, since most of them don't even know they are missing.

What puzzles me is: if you don't "enjoy" literary authors, why did you join the discussion and try to argue for the importance of English as a literary medium? If you or others like you simply don't care for non-English literature, how is that an indication of the superiority of the English language in literary success? Alternately, if you've decided in advance you don't "enjoy" non-English literature or don't even want to know about it, on what grounds are you arguing that English-only readers (as a group, not individually) don't need translated work, or perhaps have "more enjoyable" books to read in their own language?

(I hope you're following your own advice, and not speaking on behalf of others when you state your preferences - what is fun to you might be really tedious to others, you know. I am usually bored by any fictional work, literary or not, supposedly "enjoyable" (as forced into my brain repeatedly by numerous ads, celebrities or media critics) or not, bestselling or not, that is written in English - simply because the themes, jokes, settings, dialogues and characters are often so overwhelmingly familiar, if not downright predictable.)

Let me put this in a straightforward way: how much do you know about (for example) modern writing in Czech or Urdu, and how does that knowledge let you comfortably conclude a) writers in those languages would be better off writing in English, and/or b) if we never get to read them, we aren't missing much, and/or c) English speaking countries being 'literary powerhouses', any book (enjoyable or not) issued in English is probably more worthwhile than a book in - say - Arabic or Slovenian?

12Existanai
Edited: Jan 7, 2008, 3:26am Top

A couple of more questions while we're at it:

"How do countries like Russia and China, notoriously culturally isolated, compare to Britain and America?"

How did you get the impression that Russia and China were 'notoriously culturally isolated' - what are you comparing them to and have you visited either or known anyone from these countries on an intimate basis? (I have lived in Russia and know a little about its Soviet-era culture too - and Russians as a whole have always had a much better informed perspective on Americans than vice versa. As for China, some of my family/friends have either been there, lived there, or are from there. Defining isolation would be an interesting topic, but not if you don't have any understanding of it beforehand.)

"he still chose French, a prestigious world language over Modern Greek, the language of a small Balkan country."

How many people writing in Modern Greek have you read and "enjoyed"? One of my favourite poets and one of the most loved poets of the 20th century - Cavafy - wrote in Modern Greek. Does the fact he wrote in modern Greek or originally came from a small Balkan country diminish the reputation of his poetry?

"as Slovenian only has a couple million speakers, 70% isn't high; but Turkish has 50-90 million speakers and should be able to create a strong national/linguistic culture."

So what is the implication here - that Slovenian doesn't have a strong national/linguistic culture? Can you name a single Slovenian writer without rushing off to Google or Wikipedia? One of the world's most important living philosophers is Slovenian - do you know his name?

13prosfilaes
Jan 7, 2008, 3:40am Top

I'm sure the fact that Cavafy wrote in Modern Greek diminishes the reputation of his poetry, because only about 12 million people can read it. The rest of us are forced to read it in translation, and nobody trusts poetry in translation.

The implication about Slovenian is that it's expected that a smaller language would translate more of its material because it doesn't have the people to produce a wide literary market. When Turkish, on the other hand, translates 70% of its material, it's because there's not enough writing in Turkish to supply the demand for Turkish literature.

14prosfilaes
Jan 7, 2008, 4:15am Top

#11: "What puzzles me is: if you don't "enjoy" literary authors, why did you join the discussion and try to argue for the importance of English as a literary medium?"

You're the one talking about literary authors and a literary medium that presumably excludes those "witless hacks". This article wasn't talking about high literature; it was talking about translations. I enjoy reading books in translation, and would happily read the next Stephen King in translation.

Furthermore, I didn't argue for the importance of English as a literary medium, even in the broad sense of that term. I argued for the reality of it. Any language spoken by a large number of people (like English), especially if they're rich and affluent and hence going to produce a lot of literature (like British and Americans), is going to have a large supply of literature and less need to translate.

Are writers in Czech and Urdu better off writing in English? If they want to sell to the broad and affluent market for books in English, of course they are.

I never said anything about whether those books were worthwhile or not; I spoke merely on simple economic reality.

15Existanai
Edited: Jan 7, 2008, 5:57pm Top

Let's go through this step by step.

First, apologies if my tone was heated last night. It was late and I was annoyed that you merely reacted to my post instead of clarifying anything.

Secondly, I am not trying to prescribe particular books, or even particular genres over others. However, the merits of any given book are inherent to this discussion. We are after all discussing notable books that are not even made available to us. How can someone decide they're not missing anything worthwhile when they don't even know what they're missing? And since seas of stupid books affect the availability of interesting books (that are in the minority to start with) there is some point at which publishers/booksellers/readers etc. have to realize that a weakly selling interesting book is worth, on the long term, a heck of a lot more than the sales it will generate, and definitely worth more than yet another addition to the mountains of recycled cliches that comprise your standard English language bestseller (literary or not) with massive marketing engines behind it. (The question of preferred authors is secondary.)

Thirdly, I sense you don't realize this discussion is about much more than 'simple economic reality', commercial feasibility, or whatever your choice of phrase. This is partly because of incredible assertions such as: the fact that Cavafy wrote in Modern Greek diminishes the reputation of his poetry, because only about 12 million people can read it. The rest of us are forced to read it in translation, and nobody trusts poetry in translation.

I assume you're aware that our entire artistic, literary or intellectual heritage - Eastern or Western - originates in cultures that never had English, or that existed well before English was even born. Is Plato's philosophy "diminished" in reputation because philosophy is only accurate in its original language, and very few can still read Attic Greek? Are Galileo's theories "diminished" in reputation because they were written in Italian? Is Christianity a "diminished" religion because modern Bibles are translated from verses written in at least three different and mostly dead languages? (Maybe all Christians should switch to Islam, because it's more "reliable". The only Koran that religious Muslims trust - now matter what their native tongue is, Malay or Khazakh or English - is the original version in some form of classical Arabic.) These are rhetorical questions, by the way. I hope we won't hear more arguments for the relative insignificance of non-English works.

Fourthly, you haven't answered my initial questions yet. How much do you know about non-English writings (of any genre) - it could be in French or Spanish or whatever you know - that lets you safely conclude English readers have "less need to translate"?

Fifth, do you realize the contradiction in your own posts when, on the one hand, you state that you don't understand how the English-language market is squeezing out non-English writers, and on the other hand, you confirm "If (Czech or Urdu writers) want to sell to the broad and affluent market for books in English, of course they are (better off writing in English)"?

Finally, for now, do you understand why someone might prefer to write in their own language, instead of English - like, for example, their desire to write something personal than simply something that will heed 'simple economic reality' and sell to the English language market?

16krolik
Jan 7, 2008, 1:20pm Top

A good discussion here, and I'd like to pick up the strand regarding translation.

Translation is hard, creative work and wildly underpaid. It would make sense to me if the NEA and NEH offered more grants for translators and publishing houses featuring translations. And if that idea is deemed unaffordable, then it would make sense to me to shift some of the already existing grants which go to writers and offer them to translators and their infrastructure.

I say this as a writer myself (not as a translator). Any writer with guts will write regardless of grants etc. But translators work in a different kind of situation.

17LolaWalser
Jan 7, 2008, 2:01pm Top

The implication about Slovenian is that it's expected that a smaller language would translate more of its material because it doesn't have the people to produce a wide literary market.

The simplest, but I fear impractical, advice would be to go take a look at a Slovenian bookstore. Perhaps the total number of titles might be lower than in a Barnes & Noble (something I simply don't know, let me add), but I'm willing to bet sight-unseen the diversity would be surprising--as would the number and "kind" of Slovenian authors. MY hypothesis for the respectable number of translated works in Slovenian would consider at least two factors: the generally highly educated Slovenian reading public, and the undeniable popularity of escapist modern English-language genre literature (as reflected in mainstream best-selling lists from almost any country I saw).

Incidentally, from a Slovenian info site:

"A good decade ago, Slovenia held the European record for the number of books published per inhabitant and remains among the top European countries in this respect. According to data from the Statistical Office of the Republic of Slovenia, 4,430 book titles were published in 2004: 3,686 first editions and 654 reprints. Seventy-four per cent of the titles were original works, the remainder were translated texts.

Compared to a decade ago, the entire production of books has increased by approximately 36 per cent. Around seven per cent of published books were subsidised, as were some eighty cultural and scientific magazines. Most published books – 928 – were fiction; 511 of these were by Slovenian authors. Among book translations, the prevalent type was classic literature, followed by Spanish, Czech, Slovak and Italian literature."

It's interesting that the percentages of original and translated works seem to be exactly the inverse from the ones quoted in #1. I must admit that 30% translated works seems more plausible to me than 70%. Whatever the case, it certainly seems true that Slovenians translate much more than English-speakers. However, I think this reflects something positive and laudable about Slovenian culture, rather than its surmised "poverty", a rather bizarre construction.

18jfclark
Jan 7, 2008, 4:57pm Top

I share Existanai's concern about what English-speaking countries are losing as a result of limited access to non-English books. Surely there are vast numbers of books that are ignored even though qualitatively they are the equals (or the superiors) of high-quality English-language books. Surely, also, this is attributable to capitalist priorities and imperatives.

But I had two additional thoughts. First, while it would undoubtedly be a good thing to increase exposure of non-English books in English-speaking countries, it is likely the case that, as with other media such as film, the English-speaking public, on the whole, has through the marketplace expressed preferences for "homegrown" products. (I'll readily admit that I generally prefer Hollywood films to European art-house films; likewise, I don't really like the stylisms of much French literature in translation.) And there's nothing surprising or even intrinsically wrong with that--although if such preferences were legislated or were dogmatic in nature, that would indeed be problematic.

Second, even a committed bibliophile like me has to draw the line somewhere. We don't live in the world of Erasmus; it is simply impossible to become conversant, let alone expert, in the contemporary and past literatures of all major cultures. Even for those who limit themselves primarily to English works, it is impossible to canvas the wealth of five centuries of literature and still keep current. With every generation the task grows harder, and more and more previously canonical works slip from the common culture because the human brain and heart can absorb only so much art in a lifetime.

It's a function of time and of the amazing breadth of the English-language publishing landscape just as much as it is a function of capitalist bias against translated works.

19Existanai
Jan 7, 2008, 7:13pm Top

"LolaWalser: Whatever the case, it certainly seems true that Slovenians translate much more than English-speakers. However, I think this reflects something positive and laudable about Slovenian culture, rather than its surmised "poverty", a rather bizarre construction."

Exactly. Diversity of choice (especially from other countries or cultures) is a sign of various positive things - open-mindedness, a broad education, etc. It does not imply the national culture is "lacking" in something because it needs to look to another culture to fill in the 'gaps' in its own (a standard imperialistic view of other countries); and conversely, because one is closed to other cultures hardly implies that there is no 'necessity' for the latter.

jfclark: the English-speaking public, on the whole, has through the marketplace expressed preferences for "homegrown" products... Second, even a committed bibliophile like me has to draw the line somewhere. We don't live in the world of Erasmus; it is simply impossible to become conversant, let alone expert, in the contemporary and past literatures of all major cultures.

No matter where you go, people are not really interested in books or don't have the time for them; if they are interested or do have the time, they're usually only interested in specific titles or genres, and usually with only what is available - they almost never have a need for such things, or they are not curious enough to hunt down a rare or historically important work; and what is readily available is already more than what they care for. Books, for most people, are like other utilities - they provide entertainment, or allow one to network or to strengthen common areas of friendship, or they provide a reference or knowledge base for a certain purpose - professional expertise, a common education, etc.

If you don't provide much variety to begin with, people confine their choices to an immediately accessible range, and once assured of satisfaction, don't feel the need to explore anything new, and don't even understand what they might find if they tried something new. Their needs are typically few and their curiosity is easily quenched. Taking the effort to seek out or risking an unknown quantity when they are quite content with their known quantities does not seem worthwhile - and what past experience or other referent do they even have that will provoke them?

The cycle becomes self-fulfilling instantly. I walk into my clinic's waiting room, I see only tabloid magazines. I like one magazine more than the rest and begin reading it. I like it because I've read it before. I've read it before because I felt I'd like it more than the other magazines in the room. I've never seen any other reading material in the room so I can't tell you what a better magazine might be, and in any case it doesn't matter because tabloids are all there are and I found one I like...

The English language market has probably never been as permeable to world cultures as it is now ("now" as in the past two or three decades.) So there isn't any way to define how 'the market expressed a preference for the homegrown', as if it is a natural outcome after many decades of consistent exposure. (There was a time when it was more permeable to European culture, but that is so contextually removed it would be absurd to establish a progression from there to now.)

Next: among people who like books as books - as fictional worlds, as intellectual or emotional experiences (specific qualities or lack thereof being irrelevant here) - there can never be too many books, or too many kinds of books. How many one is physically capable of reading or acquiring or even flipping through is not the issue - it is the pleasure of books and what they offer that one seeks, as often and in as many ways as possible; and once the kinds of pleasures have been narrowed down, as many new or nostalgic or varied experiences as possible are pursued within that narrowed realm. I may never have the erudition of Erasmus, but the point is I don't even want that kind of erudition - a comprehensive knowledge of all Greek and Latin classics and of major works in all the predominant languages - instead, I want to have more opportunities to access that which I like, which is commonly available in other cultures or contexts. The question I am asking is not: will I ever read all the classics of English literature that are so pompously lauded over others, or all the major classics of all other countries? The question I am asking is: why do I feel so confined to mostly English language works, when there are so many non-English books out there that interest me, and which are easily accessible to those who speak other 'dominant' languages? Shouldn't English, being the language of affluence and all, logically offer the most opportunities to read the largest variety of work out there? Curiously, almost the opposite is the truth. Why?

20LolaWalser
Edited: Jan 7, 2008, 8:56pm Top

#18

Just as a reminder of the “platform” to my arguments, I first reacted to the idea expressed in this thread that, basically, “if I don’t see it, it doesn’t exist; if it doesn’t exist, it doesn’t deserve to exist”. (Illustration: I have no books from Lithuania, nor can I think of a single Lithuanian author—clearly, Lithuanians have no literature, or it’s so meagre and worthless it may as well not exist.) Like Existanai, I have no interest in prescribing what people should read, nor am I arguing in any way for inherent superiority of literature in translation, or non-English literature as such, or proposing any sort of “contest”.

The question, rather, is what does it mean and what does it say--if anything--about literatures from small countries when translations from these “small” languages are scarce—specifically, as the focus of this thread, translations into English. In this regard, it’s noteworthy that Slovenians, in the passage I quoted, translated most from Spanish, Czech, Italian and Slovak. If it were true that small countries have worthless or somehow “lacking” literatures, what would be the point of translating Slovak or Czech into Slovenian?

Surely, also, this is attributable to capitalist priorities and imperatives.

This is an important factor, as shown by the heavy presence of Anglo genre literature on global best-seller lists. But! This very phenomenon undermines the idea that English literature is somehow “better” than the local ones—it’s practically all “Men are from Mars…”, “The best sex of your life”, and all those flashy bricks of tarted-up pulp with embossed lettering and glossy covers. If one were to consider only the best-seller lists, Anglo lit would sooner appear to be worse than most!

No, it seems to me that another cultural factor is much stronger in causing the absence of translated literature (and/or of interest in it), and that’s simple chauvinism. Most people seriously believe that, in speaking and reading English, they already have access to “the best”, and any foreign Anglophilia is seen less as a variety of taste, on par with any other, then a normal, to-be-expected tribute. How many times have I heard that English is the world’s richest, most expressive language? (Typically, from people who didn’t speak any other.) The first few times I thought the person was merely mistaken, conflating quantity with quality, or perhaps misremembering, or being eccentric—eventually I understood this is a tenet of faith in English schools. English speakers are brought up to believe in the superiority of their language and literature, just like little Americans are taught not that their country is very, very big (as it indubitably is), but that it’s GREAT--the greatest in the world.

Granted, of course, that chauvinism too is global, and that every country and people have their own brand—it’s just that some are more difficult to maintain past childhood than others.

21jfclark
Edited: Jan 8, 2008, 11:01am Top

Re: #19 & Erasmus: My principal point was that the mere breadth of available literary choices in English would justify a discriminating booklover in selecting only "native" books. Luckily, many discriminating booklovers are curious about what other literatures are producing, and, as I said, it would be great to have more non-English options on the shelves at the local bookstore. I'd benefit just as you would.

But, unlike for you, "{h}ow many {books} one is physically capable of reading or acquiring or even flipping through" is the issue for me. I am curious about other literatures, and in fact do own quite a lot of literature in translation, but I seek depth in my library and in my understanding as well as breadth, and the two priorities usually conflict. That's why I don't bemoan my own Anglocentric purchasing habits, which are reflective of my considered aspirations to knowledge of particular genres and eras and not of irrational or ignorant bias.

22LolaWalser
Jan 8, 2008, 4:14pm Top

the mere breadth of available literary choices in English would justify a discriminating booklover in selecting only "native" books

But, what looks like "breadth" to you may look like dire poverty to someone else.

23Jargoneer
Jan 8, 2008, 5:29pm Top

Of course, there is another way at looking at this argument. If English-speaking countries weren't so lazy about learning other languages they could read (some of) the books without the aid of a translator. To blame publishers for trying to make money and not translating material is pointless - if you have a real interest in French literature, learn French. Obviously you can't do this for all languages but if you read French then not only do you have access to French literature but also to all the books translated into the language.

Publishers are not going to translate more books because they know that the English-speaking world is the most pig-ignorant market - they know what they want and they want more of it, only dumber. It's not just books: it's foreign-language films; foreign-language music; black and white films; documentaties; etc - we don't want this rubbish any more; we want English and colour, and we don't want it to hurt my brain, and we want more of it, and we want it BIGGER.

Re - English is the world’s richest, most expressive language - that's because English now has close to a million words when most languages have about a third as many (approx). It's purely mathematical.

24prosfilaes
Jan 8, 2008, 8:40pm Top

Existanai writes:

And since seas of stupid books affect the availability of interesting books (that are in the minority to start with) there is some point at which publishers/booksellers/readers etc. have to realize that a weakly selling interesting book is worth, on the long term, a heck of a lot more than the sales it will generate,

Interesting to whom? Obviously, most published books are interesting to enough people to make publishing worthwhile. Why will publishing a weak selling "interesting" book be worth more than the sales it will generate, monetarily-wise? (Because that's all the big publishers care about, and at the end of the day, the small publishers have to care about that too.)

This is partly because of incredible assertions such as: the fact that Cavafy wrote in Modern Greek diminishes the reputation of his poetry, because only about 12 million people can read it. The rest of us are forced to read it in translation, and nobody trusts poetry in translation.

That's an incredible assertion? Are you seriously claiming that people trust poetry in translation?

-Fifth, do you realize the contradiction in your own posts when, on the one hand, you state that you don't understand how the English-language market is squeezing out non-English writers, and on the other hand, you confirm "If (Czech or Urdu writers) want to sell to the broad and affluent market for books in English, of course they are (better off writing in English)"

Your post is the first to use the phrase "squeezing out", so I hardly could have stated an opinion on whether or not it's happening.

If Swiss German writers, like Kafka, want to sell to the broad and affluent market for books in German, they are better off writing the final draft in standard High German, like Kafka did. If Balochi writers want to sell to the broad and affluent market for books in Urdu, they are better off writing in Urdu. This is a eternal universal phenomenon; none of the authors of the New Testament were Greek, to the best of my knowledge. As a matter of modern day occurrence, the article cited an author who chose to write French instead of Modern Greek, as did Eugène Ionesco.

I may never have the erudition of Erasmus, but the point is I don't even want that kind of erudition - a comprehensive knowledge of all Greek and Latin classics and of major works in all the predominant languages

All the predominant languages, if by that you mean to include the Biblical languages and the Western European ones.

why do I feel so confined to mostly English language works, when there are so many non-English books out there that interest me, and which are easily accessible to those who speak other 'dominant' languages?

Probably because you choose to feel confined. You have access to more books in translation than anyone in the world would have had a century ago, and even if the English market translated ten times the number of books it does, it would still leave the vast majority of books untranslated. Also because you choose not to learn another dominant language which would make those works accessible.

Frankly, I think it dangerous to speculate too openly on why you feel the way you do. It's too dangerous in a heated debate.

LolaWalser wrote:

Whatever the case, it certainly seems true that Slovenians translate much more than English-speakers. However, I think this reflects something positive and laudable about Slovenian culture

I don't. No point in Slovenia is more than 50 miles from the border of a country that speaks a different language. Capital to capital, from Ljubljana to Rome is 300 miles, and to Prague is 278 miles. Of course they translate those languages; it's a matter of necessity. If they lived in a country like the US, where they could read books written by people a thousand miles away without translation, and where most people aren't within 100 miles of the border, they would translate less.

But, what looks like "breadth" to you may look like dire poverty to someone else

Give some people the Earth, and they'll demand the Moon. There's no way to judge what's reasonable without concrete numbers that haven't been offered here.

25Existanai
Edited: Jan 8, 2008, 10:35pm Top

Jfclark: My principal point was that the mere breadth of available literary choices in English would justify a discriminating booklover in selecting only "native" books. Luckily, many discriminating booklovers are curious about what other literatures are producing...

Not to labour the point too much, but: I don't see what is lucky about this, and I don't understand how you can conclude a "discriminating booklover" is justified in sticking to native literature. Any keen reader encounters translated work early on (even in the most Anglocentric tradition, modern culture originates in the continent, and until some fifty or so years ago (if I am correctly informed - I'm not British) Greek and Latin were mandatory in all schools) and anyone that can be labelled discriminating must necessarily have a broad range of experience or tastes to reach that stage. To have heard of Wells but not Verne is not, in my opinion, a sign of discerning taste, and as mentioned, any curious Anglo-American child encounters both right away. English literature is itself rooted in the Classics and later European trends.

I think you're essentially trying to say there is plenty of excellent work in the English language, which no one denies, and that there is enough to fill a lifetime of reading, which again is undeniable, but - sorry to nitpick - this is hardly the same as acknowledging there is tremendous breadth in English literature. Borges may have loved and been inspired to a profound extent by English literature and culture, by the literature and culture of the land even before it had an identity, but - the key point here is - there is no "English" Borges (although he might have liked to be called such himself). Now you can try to write like Borges in English, or find authors who cover similar themes, but again - that's not the same as reading Borges.

I'm not agitating for a counter-English movement or something - like with you, the majority of my books were originally written in English, and due to my own intellectual/physical/cultural limitations, I tend to buy books mostly in English. However, I just find it really saddening and frustrating every time I can't research a simple reference - when I read, for example, a line in Borges that goes "Alfonso Reyes, the greatest prose writer in the Spanish language of any age, said to me: 'Groussac taught me how to write in Spanish.' "

As you will see from the touchstone, no one on LT appears to have any of Reyes' books in English (of course, it is his style in Spanish that is being praised, but one does wonder what he wrote about), and only one selection of his essays was published in English anyway - in 1950. Earlier, in 1946, one of his essays on a photographer appeared in an edition of the photographer's work. That's about it.

In Spanish, his complete works run to around 26 volumes.

Incidentally, if anyone here is belatedly feeling Santaish, I would love copies of the two Reyes volumes. I know where they can be found online for a reasonable price, but the whole shipping to Canada thing is a bit discouraging.

As for Groussac - don't bother. Our esteemed publishers (and, I guess, some readers) have, in all their remarkable wisdom, ensured that we will never need to enquire whether he is worth looking into, since they have already decided on our behalf.

26Existanai
Edited: Jan 9, 2008, 5:07pm Top

Message #24 is probably not the kind that invites replies, since it stands sturdily on its own as an emblem of smugness and ignorance. Nevertheless, for the sake of clarification, I will try to explain what I meant and why some statements there are, to put it charitably, wrong.

"E: a weakly selling interesting book is worth, on the long term, a heck of a lot more than the sales it will generate..."

"P: Interesting to whom?"


Interesting to people who think it is a book worth recommending, worth studying, worth returning to; interesting to people who have a taste for similar books; interesting to people who might read it when its author/s and initial readers, publishers and critics are long dead - in brief, interesting to that archetypal reader who is sensitive and knowledgeable enough to recognize a unique work, whether it is a children's book, a horror tale, or a dense volume of technical instruction. It's hard to compare a pop-science anthology to a reprint of classic architectural drawings, of course, but they can each be notable in their own way. (Once again, I am not prescribing particular books or authors. I used literary authors to illustrate why non-English literature can be universally recognized as valuable, not to berate or intimidate anyone. I am clueless about many things myself, including literature.)

"P: Obviously, most published books are interesting to enough people to make publishing worthwhile. Why will publishing a weak selling "interesting" book be worth more than the sales it will generate, monetarily-wise? (Because that's all the big publishers care about, and at the end of the day, the small publishers have to care about that too.)"

This is either a naive or a willfully argumentative assertion. If you think every movie or book or painting or sculpture or musical work was produced because they were already perceived as notable before their inception, you need to learn something about history, about art, about commissions, even about the simple economics and the market realities that you rave about. Crap is on the market because anything that can be consumed will be consumed, not because crap is the new gold, silver and bronze rolled into one. And if you think all publishers only put out books because they will make money, then I think you need to learn a simple reality about publishing too: some 90% of it is unprofitable, and a significant portion of those businesses weren't started for the money alone. However, it is true that a lot of mainstream publishing has become all about the bottom line in recent decades because of bad business practices. Publishing houses are added to the portfolios of speculators and businessmen who care nothing about books and probably don't browse anything except the newspaper, but who merely want to "expand", add an "asset", or turn a steady but low-profit business into a boom or bust venture. I recommend Andre Schiffrin's The Business of Books for a little insight.

"P: Are you seriously claiming that people trust poetry in translation?"

I never spoke of trust or accuracy, but the simple ability to love poetry or any literature in translation, and find it powerful or memorable or your preferred term. That poetry can be somehow 'lesser' because it was not written in English is news to me - I wonder what all those idiot-savants like T. S. Eliot were thinking when they praised and wrote essays on Dante without learning any Italian.

So - going by your counter assertion - I take it no one has appreciated verse in translation for some two thousand years. I don't want to take up any obscure examples, so I'll repeat my question above about the Bible. It was written in verse, in languages the majority of Christians through history haven't spoken and probably didn't even know of. It seems to me the translations have been 'trusted' enough by hundreds of millions for two millennia. Enough, at least, that they have also been accompanied with blind faith, fanaticism, genocide and whatever else you can name. So should all the world's Christians now abandon their untrustworthy tomes, chuck them into the trash, and convert to Islam, since the latter only refers to purportedly original editions of Koran, the literal and true Word of God, untarnished by the translations of heathen hands?

Maybe I have my facts wrong. Oh, wait, I must have read some history not originally documented in English and involuntarily filled my head with nonsense... damn.

E: do you realize the contradiction in your own posts when, on the one hand, you state that you don't understand how the English-language market is squeezing out non-English writers, and on the other hand, you confirm "If (Czech or Urdu writers) want to sell to the broad and affluent market for books in English, of course they are (better off writing in English)"

P: Your post is the first to use the phrase "squeezing out", so I hardly could have stated an opinion on whether or not it's happening.


You wrote: "I fail to see the connection to "there's even a danger that the dominance of English-language publishing is putting other languages and literary cultures at risk."

P: "If Swiss German writers, like Kafka, want to sell to the broad and affluent market for books in German, they are better off writing the final draft in standard High German, like Kafka did. If Balochi writers want to sell to the broad and affluent market for books in Urdu, they are better off writing in Urdu. This is a eternal universal phenomenon; none of the authors of the New Testament were Greek, to the best of my knowledge. As a matter of modern day occurrence, the article cited an author who chose to write French instead of Modern Greek, as did Eugène Ionesco.

I can't believe this rubbish but then... we should all be civil. Kafka did not write in German to access an affluent market; he didn't even publish much in his lifetime; he was simply writing in his native tongue, a tongue he thought in, conversed in and was schooled in, a tongue that was not Czech or Hebrew. Yes, IF your primary intention is to sell as many books as possible, and IF you trust your language skills in a more widely spoken language, THEN it might be more practical to write in the latter, but that is NOT the predicament of most writers. Once again, I ask a question that I asked before and that you haven't answered - does it even occur to you WHY people might want to write in their own language? Would you write your journals in French and stick to French company simply because you had started living in France? Or would you hang around at the Hard Rock Cafe with other Americans making fun of your French waiter's English?

E: why do I feel so confined to mostly English language works, when there are so many non-English books out there that interest me, and which are easily accessible to those who speak other 'dominant' languages?

P: Probably because you choose to feel confined. You have access to more books in translation than anyone in the world would have had a century ago, and even if the English market translated ten times the number of books it does, it would still leave the vast majority of books untranslated. Also because you choose not to learn another dominant language which would make those works accessible.


Ah yes, that standard reactionary argument so popular in the US: you're poor, you chose to be that way; your country kills random foreigners for your safety, like it or leave; you live in a free country, so quit whining and enjoy your freedom...

It is not a question of how many more books will be left untranslated, or how many quantities of books have been translated. Diversity is different from quantity - I can walk into a supermarket and find seven hundred types of chocolate and shout "So much choice! All hail capitalism!" but they might all be manufactured by a total of five companies with very little variation between them in taste, size, packaging and so on. It is not the same as having two hundred types of chocolate, a third of them quite unlike the standard fare.

Why is it so hard to accept something is lacking - yes, LACKING - in your culture?

I speak about five other languages comfortably and about two others haltingly, but don't trust my knowledge enough to read widely in other languages. How about you?

LolaWalser wrote: However, I think this reflects something positive and laudable about Slovenian culture

P: I don't. No point in Slovenia is more than 50 miles from the border of a country that speaks a different language. Capital to capital, from Ljubljana to Rome is 300 miles, and to Prague is 278 miles. Of course they translate those languages; it's a matter of necessity. If they lived in a country like the US, where they could read books written by people a thousand miles away without translation, and where most people aren't within 100 miles of the border, they would translate less.


Your argument is so exasperatingly stupid, I'm running out of imagination to find a suitable analogy to describe it. I guess some things in life are just special.

English comes from Britain which is a smallish island, about 5600 kilometres away from the US. Going by your precise statistical logic, you shouldn't even be speaking English, much less arguing about translations. You ought to be learning how to sail back.

Between 70-90% of everything you own or have consumed in your life has come from East or South or Southeast Asia. Going by your precise statistical logic, you ought to be working in a rice field wearing a straw hat, wearing sarongs to bed, and singing in Thai at the crack of dawn from your boathouse.

Since the USA has 300 million people and is about 9000 kilometres across, the third largest country in the world by size and population, and since you'll never see the total 9.6 million square kms in the USA or meet all the 300 million people, you never have to see what the rest of the world is like ... Oh wait, there's no irony in that analogy...

(edit: touchstone, removed redundant phrase and font.)

27timspalding
Jan 9, 2008, 2:29am Top

Cavafy wrote in Modern Greek. Does the fact he wrote in modern Greek or originally came from a small Balkan country diminish the reputation of his poetry.

Cavafy was born, lived much of his life and died in Alexandria, Egypt. He spent more time in Constantinople, Britain and France than the Kingdom of Greece. I at least am more attracted to his work for this cosmpolitianism and his connection to that other "foreign country," the past.

28Existanai
Jan 9, 2008, 2:48am Top

"Tim: Cavafy was born, lived much of his life and died in Alexandria, Egypt."

I know, Tim - being very fond of the poet as well, I own and have read Robert Liddell's biography 'Cavafy'. The "originally from a small Balkan country" was meant to indicate his family was Greek, but I suppose I wasn't clear enough. He also didn't write in what is now called Modern Greek, but a mixture of Demotic and Katharevousa - but I don't know Greek so I can't provide much more detail.

29prosfilaes
Jan 9, 2008, 7:27am Top

Once again, I am not prescribing particular books or authors. I used literary authors to illustrate why non-English literature can be universally recognized as valuable, not to berate or intimidate anyone.

Right. You start off by attacking Stephen King and Daniele Steel, and continue to attack bestsellers of all types. You're certainly proscribing books of a certain type.

I'm certainly not arguing that non-English literature isn't valuable, but that you can't just compare statistics blindly, that it's not as simple as "bad Americans", and that starting out by attacking popular authors is a popular theme, but just offends most of the people you might discuss things with.

interesting to that archetypal reader who is sensitive and knowledgeable enough to recognize a unique work,

So basically, interesting to you, and that's all that matters in the world.

Kafka did not write in German to access an affluent market; he didn't even publish much in his lifetime; he was simply writing in his native tongue, a tongue he thought in, conversed in and was schooled in, a tongue that was not Czech or Hebrew.

German was not his native tongue. Alemannic was. But the material he published were all in German, and when his collected works were first printed in the 1930s, all the previously unprinted material was reedited into Standard High German. But I guess facts don't matter here.

does it even occur to you WHY people might want to write in their own language?

Of course it does. And if they're happy doing that, what's the problem? But once they have dreams of hitting a certain audience, then you have to change what you're writing to hit that audience.

Diversity is different from quantity - I can walk into a supermarket and find seven hundred types of chocolate and shout "So much choice! All hail capitalism!" but they might all be manufactured by a total of five companies with very little variation between them in taste, size, packaging and so on. It is not the same as having two hundred types of chocolate, a third of them quite unlike the standard fare.

And a person from a hundred years ago would be shocked by the diversity. A place having five different companies providing chocolate? Amazing. There's no reason that one should or would satisfy you and the other wouldn't.

Your argument is so exasperatingly stupid,

That you can't seem to respond to it in any meaningful way. The Slovenians are reading books from their continent, in most cases even their local region, the exact thing Americans are doing. But you want to condemn the Americans for that, and not the Slovenians.

You wrote: "I fail to see the connection to "there's even a danger that the dominance of English-language publishing is putting other languages and literary cultures at risk."

Right; let's look at that in context.

"Ninety-six per cent of the world's languages are spoken by just four per cent of the world's population" is entirely true*, but I fail to see the connection to "there's even a danger that the dominance of English-language publishing is putting other languages and literary cultures at risk."

In other words, I was specifically talking about how I didn't see the connection between one sentence to the one you quote. As a general rule, if you want to take someone out of context, it's a lot better to do so when the original text is not easily at hand; it's a lot less obvious.

30jfclark
Jan 9, 2008, 8:52am Top

Existanai #25: Considering how narrow is the scope of our ostensible disagreement, you're being remarkably stubborn by writing:

"I think you're essentially trying to say there is plenty of excellent work in the English language, which no one denies, and that there is enough to fill a lifetime of reading, which again is undeniable, but - sorry to nitpick - this is hardly the same as acknowledging there is tremendous breadth in English literature."

Using any of the standards for discrimination/judgment/rationality in a reader that each of us has posited or used (explicitly or implicitly) in this thread, I submit that it is simply inconceivable that a reader who meets the standard would fail to acknowledge that there is "tremendous breadth in English literature." For those who know even a little about the 500-year panorama of modern-English writing (to say nothing of earlier stuff), it's a truism: picking authors more or less at random, I go from Spenser to Hobbes to Sterne to Johnson to Austen to Carlyle to Joyce to Beckett (irony preemptively noted), all very much in-print and au courant. I know that other literatures can boast of comparable or even greater panorama, but I don't get why you'd want to debate such an elementary point about English writing.

#22 LolaWalser: I submit that a person to whom the whole variety of in-print English literature amounts to "dire poverty" is merely the non-American doppelganger of the average nativist reader we've all been using as the exemplar of ignorance, and as such not worth holding up as a counterexampe. Again, one doesn't need to assert or believe in the qualitative superiority of English-language writing to understand that there is definitely great breadth in that literature----Now, if you were referring only to what I consider to be "breadth" within my personal library, I'd admit there'd be more argumentative room :)

31GirlFromIpanema
Edited: Jan 9, 2008, 9:33am Top

29: prosfilaes: On Kafka: "German was not his native tongue. Alemannic was. But the material he published were all in German, and when his collected works were first printed in the 1930s, all the previously unprinted material was reedited into Standard High German. But I guess facts don't matter here."

OK, as a native German let me put the facts right here ;-): Kafka most certainly did not speak/write Alemannic because this would mean he had lived either in Southwest Germany or in Northern Switzerland. He lived in Prague as part of the German-language minority (about 7% at his time). He called himself a German native in respect of language, but dearly loved the Czech language, too (he was fluent in both). He was Austrian until 1918 and Czechoslovak after that. His works were edited by his friend Max Brod, whom he had asked to destroy all his works, but who luckily did not comply. Writing in dialects would have been highly unlikely, authors wrote in Standard German (even today dialects and other languages have only a niche in the German literary market).

32prosfilaes
Jan 9, 2008, 9:56am Top

Writing in dialects would have been highly unlikely, authors wrote in Standard German (even today dialects and other languages have only a niche in the German literary market).

Which is exactly my point; you can't blame just the English literary market for discouraging authors from writing in their native language.

33GirlFromIpanema
Jan 9, 2008, 10:40am Top

Well, you cannot exactly compare a german dialect and its relation to Standard German to the relation between, say, English and German. Dialects are considered a bit quaint here, and there is no standard spelling for any of them, so that makes them unlikely candidates for a broader production of literature (how many books are there written in Alabama dialect? Or in Cockney?). And as I wrote, Kafka wrote in Standard German, so the editing was more in respect of style and choice of words.

34prosfilaes
Jan 9, 2008, 12:17pm Top

No, but you did include other languages, which includes Alemannic and Low German. The reason of course that they don't have a standard spelling is because nobody writes or publishes in them, which is a vicious circle.

35timspalding
Jan 9, 2008, 12:50pm Top

>27 timspalding:

It's such a vanished world. Greeks (and Albanians, Jews, Armenians, etc.) living comfortably and in numbers around the eastern Mediterranean.

36Existanai
Edited: Jan 9, 2008, 1:48pm Top

JFC: "Using any of the standards for discrimination/judgment/rationality in a reader that each of us has posited or used (explicitly or implicitly) in this thread, I submit that it is simply inconceivable that a reader who meets the standard would fail to acknowledge that there is "tremendous breadth in English literature." ... I know that other literatures can boast of comparable or even greater panorama, but I don't get why you'd want to debate such an elementary point about English writing."

I already illustrated my point by mentioning there is no Borges of the English language - or Perec or Calvino or Camus or Hesse or Musil any of the other major non-Anglo-American 20th century writers; one can't read their epigones and suggest the latter as an example of comprehensive breadth.

I'll keep it brief and modify an example I used above: China and India have over a billion people each, and are among the ten largest countries on the planet by population and by size. There is no way I could ever hope to exhaust their variety - almost every state in India has its own language, its own cuisine, its own traditions, and there is even a stereotypical physiognomy in each region that becomes apparent as you move around. The life of an Assamese villager has absolutely nothing in common with the life of a yuppie technocrat in Bangalore. The history, architecture and the literature of India is immense and is still in the process of being 'discovered'. The cultural variations and practices are inexhaustible. The blend of past, present, East and West are not even fully understood by Indians themselves, they are simply absorbed into daily life. Though China is a very different country, it is similarly old, vast and complex. However - and this is my very simple point - no matter how much you can explore within a certain country, love it, research it, etc. it is just not the same as getting a global view by travelling to different countries.

In effect, I am talking on a different scale than you are. You are talking about breadth within a culture, which most widespread cultures (and vast literatures) undeniably have. I am talking about breadth across cultures, which few people - in any country - are willing to embrace.

The sore point here is that English-speaking cultures tend to assume that they know everything worth knowing, and don't need to learn anything they aren't familiar with, as if the entire world had been preconceived and presented in its entire hierarchical organization to every new generation of English speakers. A presumption amply demonstrated by some posters above.

37GirlFromIpanema
Edited: Jan 9, 2008, 2:16pm Top

#34: We were talking about Kafka, so Alemannic doesn't play a role here. He spoke an Austrian dialect (German-speaking minority in Czechy). Austrian (austro-bavarian) dialects are exactly that: dialects. That is undisputed by most Linguists. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Austro-Bavarian#Classification
As to Alemannic and Low German as "dialects versus language"... You don't want to go there, you really don't ;-). Politics.
GFI, speaker of Low German.

38Existanai
Edited: Jan 9, 2008, 5:26pm Top

Re: #29/etc.

I am tired of clarifying every moot point here, but if you wish to persist, I won't stop you... I may not join you though because I feel our cups of mutual communication/goodwill have been emptied.

P: (You) continue to attack bestsellers of all types. You're certainly proscribing books of a certain type.

There are good books that are short-term bestsellers, and there are bad books that are short-term bestsellers. Good books are always in the minority in any small, specific period of time. However, over the course of history, the majority of books that are preserved are 'bestselling' in the sense that successive generations continue to read them; and most of these preserved books are considered invaluable, not by me alone but by a critical community of readers (friends, authors, scholars) whom I largely agree with or whose recommendations I tend to follow.

I hope you're not trying to say no bad book has ever been published, or that there is no such thing as poor writing.

P: German was not his native tongue. Alemannic was... But I guess facts don't matter here.

I hope this has been cleared up ... no further comment.

a person from a hundred years ago would be shocked by the diversity. A place having five different companies providing chocolate? Amazing. There's no reason that one should or would satisfy you and the other wouldn't.

Eh... a hundred years ago cosmopolitan Europeans may have easily found stores selling more than five brands of chocolate, and they had as much or more choice when it came to finding, for example, a good cafe than they do now.

There are plenty of reasons why quantity is not a satisfactory standard over quality, but after several clear examples, I guess you're not just going to get it. Why is it so, so hard to grasp that having several different flavours in an ice-cream bar, offered in scoops, for example, is preferable to being served a tub of vanilla or chocolate everytime I visit? "Hey, there's plenty in that tub and you ain't gonna finish it, so quit yer complainin' and eat it up!"

"The Slovenians are reading books from their continent, in most cases even their local region, the exact thing Americans are doing. But you want to condemn the Americans for that, and not the Slovenians"...

Here we go in circles: LITERATURE ISN'T A REGIONAL PRODUCE! It's not a local fish or fresh juice that needs to be consumed at a specific place and time, before expiry or whatever. If your thinking is always and only restricted to a specific culture, no matter its physical breadth, it means your thinking is restricted. It doesn't mean your mind is enriched by the variety of local flora and fauna unavailable in other countries.

Your argument just doesn't hold water even if we fail to take the basic concept above into account.

As I said before, English comes from ENGLAND, not from the US, so following your line of thought, England (being well within 1000 miles of many European countries) should be swamped with Scandinavian or Dutch literature in translation...which it isn't.

I live in Canada now, which is the second largest country by area in the world. The 'local' languages, if they can be called that, are English, French and a variety of native Canadian tongues. However, I certainly don't find the majority of Canadians using anything but English (or another language if their roots are elsewhere), and very rarely any native tongue.

And Russians live in the largest country in the world, and still read a heck of a lot more in translation than Americans do.

It's just a hollow argument every way you look at it from a modern perspective, to even suggest that people don't read foreign books because they don't live near many foreign countries, and conversely, that you would read more foreign books if you lived in a landlocked region... it would have made sense some two thousand or so years ago in the case of China (the Chinese were once skeptical of the existence of a world beyond their borders) but not in the 21st century.

39Jargoneer
Jan 9, 2008, 2:50pm Top

>36 Existanai: - the problem with your argument is that it effectively undermines itself. Taking your example of India - the vastness and history of the country means that you could spend all your life studying it and never need to leave. You can equally say that about the English-speaking world which encompasses a number of different countries - therefore it order to travel through different cultures, an expanse of history, etc, you don't ever have to read any material from another language. The question is therefore - why should you spend time exploring the cultures of other languages when you will never have enough time to explore your own cultural heritage? Is it best to admit that and study one culture in depth, rather than have a passing knowledge of twenty?

40jfclark
Jan 9, 2008, 2:59pm Top

#36 Existanai: Thanks for clarifying. "Comprehensive breadth," as opposed to "tremendous breadth" (your earlier phrase), certainly cannot be claimed by any one literature or group of literatures, and I would never have claimed it on behalf of English. Still, personally I tend to be more vexed by the fact that Sir Thomas Browne and Norman Douglas and numerous other luminaries of English literature are out of print than by my inability to find most non-English authors in translation (with some exceptions--I do wish Roberto Bolano and Javier Marias and the Duc de Saint-Simon were better represented).

41Existanai
Jan 9, 2008, 5:03pm Top

>36 Existanai: - the problem with your argument is that it effectively undermines itself. Taking your example of India ... You can equally say that about the English-speaking world which encompasses a number of different countries - therefore it order to travel through different cultures, an expanse of history, etc, you don't ever have to read any material from another language.

One, it's just an analogy, and two, I think you misunderstand the reason for my analogy. I'm trying to explain why exploring the diversity of the globe is not the same as exploring a country, no matter how diverse that country already is - similarly, reading from a variety of world literatures is a different experience than reading a certain literature in-depth, even if that literature is already diverse and comprehensive and has many different national or linguistic or cultural sources (like Indian culture). Sure, you can encounter many countries and cultures without the need for other languages (as many people do) but is the experience of visiting a country with a very different language and culture fundamentally different from the experience of a Brit in America, or even in Guyana? Yes; at least, I think it is.

The question is therefore - why should you spend time exploring the cultures of other languages when you will never have enough time to explore your own cultural heritage? Is it best to admit that and study one culture in depth, rather than have a passing knowledge of twenty?

I don't see why this question is even necessary. Are we obligated to know our culture/s in depth? Are we obligated to know other culture/s in depth? No and no. We explore whatever we are curious about and interested in. Although there is a tremendous amount to learn about India, I don't explore it much myself because I'm not very curious about it. I am curious about some other countries, like France or maybe Japan. I am not arguing for "breadth" in bookstores, or more translations because people have a superimposed moral or cultural or intellectual obligation of any kind. (Daily life in any culture already comes with certain boundaries and obligations, and they are enough of a hassle. And of course, within some intellectual or educational or professional context, some learning is a necessity.) I am arguing because we are limited to begin with, because we reduce opportunities for those who are curious about or stimulated by novelty and diversity and who might help to make things better or create something beneficial, and because we limit ourselves further - culturally, technologically, politically - by ignoring or excluding or devaluing or lessening what lies outside our immediate world.

Excuse the rhetoric - essentially, it is less about obligation of any kind and more about desire, will and improvement (I hesitate to say 'progress' because I am in two minds about the concept.)

42prosfilaes
Jan 9, 2008, 5:06pm Top

Good books are always in the minority in any small, specific period of time.

Which explains why you're unhappy about the variety of books available to you; you're a glass-half-empty type of person. Good and bad are arbitrary levels, so there's no objective way to show that "good books are always in minority". Personally, I think that when most books that are bought and read, their buyers for the most part are not unhappy that they bought the book after finishing, and hence the book is good.

There are plenty of reasons why quantity is not a satisfactory standard over quality,

It doesn't matter what the quantity or quality is; if you're prone to be happy with it, you will be, and if you're prone to be satisfied with life, you will be. You feel unhappy with the range of literature you have available to you in translation because of who you are more than any other factor in the world.

It doesn't mean your mind is enriched by the variety of local flora and fauna unavailable in other countries.

I thought this was a discussion of translation practices into English compared with that of other countries. If this were merely an American bashing session, perhaps somebody should have said so.

43Existanai
Edited: Jan 9, 2008, 5:25pm Top

Which explains why you're unhappy about the variety of books available to you; you're a glass-half-empty type of person... if you're prone to be happy with it, you will be, and if you're prone to be satisfied with life, you will be. You feel unhappy with the range of literature you have available to you in translation because of who you are more than any other factor in the world.

Profound.

If this were merely an American bashing session, perhaps somebody should have said so.

You used a senseless argument and it was pointed out as such.

44Jargoneer
Jan 9, 2008, 5:41pm Top

>42 prosfilaes: - Good and bad are arbitrary levels, so there's no objective way to show that "good books are always in minority". It happens all the time - look at the thread that details the bestseling books throughout the 20th century. You will find that most of the books that are in the top 10 are forgotten. Why? Because they didn't have any lasting merit to them, therefore there is no desire on anyone's behalf to re-publish them. At the same time, a small percentage of books are constantly republished. Why? Because they are judged to have merit - in other words, they are good. It is the same now as it has always been - a few books will survive because they have been judged to be good, most will be forgotten.

45LolaWalser
Jan 9, 2008, 7:40pm Top

jargoneer

Re - English is the world’s richest, most expressive language - that's because English now has close to a million words when most languages have about a third as many (approx). It's purely mathematical.

Ah, now it's a "million". The last time I argued about this my interlocutor (a English-speaking monolingual college professor) insisted on only 600,000. :)

Do you mind explaining where do you get this number and what does it represent exactly? What happened in her case, she was vaguely remembering something about the OED, which, as it turns out, lists some half a million entries (not 600K, just for precision's sake), called "words"--but these "words" include ALL the compound phrases, so that, for instance, "run off", "run in" etc. are counted as "words".

Of course, there ARE a whole lot of words in English--especially if we count (as the OED does) the many historical forms, archaisms and so on, although it's unclear whether words few know and fewer use can justifiably be said to contribute to a living language's expressivity. (I expect this is also how you derive your "million". Fine, but then we'll simply include all the archaisms in other languages in the comparison.) But I have yet to see any mathematical proof that it's the richest language, even quantitatively. In fact, I'd wager that any theoretically infinitely compound-making language, such as German, is automatically richer, mathematically and otherwise.

In my further, not very rigorous exploration of the OED, I came to the number of actual words in English being closer to somewhat over 200K. In comparison, my mid-range university French dictionary lists about 195K words, while my favourite Spanish one leads far ahead with more than 450K. (Notably, this one includes many variants from half a dozen different Spanishes.)

Numbers are fun, but I don't wish to leave the impression that I think counting words is the last word on the expressive quality and "richness" of a language. No, it is simply that I have NEVER heard ANYONE but English speakers make these preposterous claims about the absolute (be it even only lexic) primacy of their language, and I find that remarkable, curious, and even funny.

47prosfilaes
Jan 9, 2008, 8:39pm Top

What does it say to the Portuguese if no one in Britain has the opportunity to read their equivalent of Dickens in fresh English-language translations?

So what's wrong with the old ones? Are there issues of accuracy?

48Existanai
Edited: Jan 10, 2008, 12:44am Top

"LW: I just saw this article..."

Aha - I saw that article earlier tonight, and was just thinking of posting it too.

Some of the comments on that webpage are an eery reflection of this one, and they settle LolaWalser's case about Anglophile chauvinism.

"P: So what's wrong with the old ones?"

Prosfilaes, a few visits to your local bookstores should reveal that they're either rare or unavailable.

49Jargoneer
Jan 10, 2008, 4:34am Top

> 45 - check here for the number of words in English Global Language Monitor. This number is the upper range of English including all kinds of jargon etc. It's interesting that you mention your Spanish dictionary having twice as many words as your English dictionary as it generally reckoned (I can't find the book reference, sorry) that English has approximately twice as many active words as Spanish, likewise French. (Part of this is undoubtably due to English adopting words from other languages). German has more than Spanish but still less than English - interestingly, German is the European language that in everyday uses fewer words.
I'm not saying that English is more expressive than other languages; only pointing out that you could theoretically argue that point using the range of words available in a given language. You could also use the lack of, or freedom from, grammar in English as the basis for a freer mode of expression. (As an aside, I'll ask my Croatian flatmate why she decided to write in English - other than the obvious fact of living in Scotland).

I looked up some details regarding the number of books published in various languages in recent years - in the UK circa 1996 the number was 107000 (by 2005 over 200k - strangely the UK publishes more than the US); at the same time the number published in France was 35000.
This means that the UK published (using figures from beginning of thread) 2100 translated books, while France published 9450. It is a fair assumption that the vast number of these books translated into French come from English - even if we say it is only 50% that means that the discrepancy in translated works from the rest of the world between the UK and France is 2:1. Of course, this doesn't diminish the fact that the French are far more likely to read a book in translation than readers in the UK.

50marietherese
Edited: Jan 10, 2008, 5:18am Top

Lola, the linguists at Language Log make precisely the same excellent points regarding languages and their lexicons that you do here. And, patient folks that they are, they do it again and again and again because-gosh darn it!-the annoying myth of the snowflake specialness of English (and Chinese, and Japanese, and Spanish, and, well, Gruzinic, for all I know) just refuses to die. Some of their more recent attempts at driving a stake through this timeless yet silly myth's heart can be found in the articles linked below:
986,120 words for snow job
Special linguistic providence
The specialness of English
and my personal favorite Vocabulary size and penis length

Jukka Korpela makes an amusing case for Finnish possessing the greatest vocabulary:'I will conclude with a proof that Finnish has an infinite number of words. In Finnish, there is a derived word for any numeral, corresponding in meaning the words in the sequence simple, double, triple, etc. You take the numeral, make it one word, and append the word -kertainen possibly after some changes to the stem. Thus from tuhat viisi ‘1005’ we get tuhatviisikertainen. And generally, there is the sequence of numerals yksinkertainen, kaksinkertainen, kolminkertainen and so on – literally ad infinitum.'

He then sensibly adds:'Someone probably argues that I just proved a ‘potential’ infinity, not an actual one. But this is really irrelevant to answering the question under discussion. What matters is that if you make any quantified claim, saying that language X has N words, I can easily construct a set of Finnish words, containing surely more than N words. And this proves little about Finnish; there are similar examples in any sufficiently analytic language. What this proves is that the question “Which language has largest vocabulary?” is pointless.' (bolding mine)

Edited to fix bad HTML

51marietherese
Jan 10, 2008, 5:23am Top

Jargoneer, you must have posted as I was laboring over my last post. You might want to have a look at the Language Log links I posted above as they clearly explain why most linguists find Payack's methodology specious and Global Language Monitor anything but a reputable source of statistical information on English vocabulary.

52Jargoneer
Jan 10, 2008, 5:58am Top

>51 marietherese: - I actually find the million words fact a little specious as well. The other fact about active words is probably more relevant - as is the fact that the average American has a vocabulary of between 14-20k, and that Shakespeare used 24k words, including 1700 he made up (or to be accurate, probably used first). Therefore we can deduce that it doesn't really matter how many words there are, it's how the words are placed together that makes the difference.

It's interesting that you should quote a Finnish person regarding language because I think we all know that Finland is not a real place, although his argument does explain why virtually all Finnish people learn to speak English - to understand each other!
You may think I'm joking about Finland not existing but I remember going to Helsinki. Once there I thought the city looked a lot like Oslo, and after exploring more I realised I was in Oslo. When I started to complain that I should be Helsinki I was kidnapped by some strange men. When captive it was explained to me that Finland didn't exist and was actually the creation of a group of Scandanavian accountants in the early part of the 20th century as a tax dodge. Unfortunately authorities in Norway and Sweden started to get suspicious so they had to go further and invent a capital, a language, history, etc; with the end result that everything got out of hand and the whole world started to believe in Finland. By then it was too late to go back and so a special task force was created with the sole aim of maintaining the myth of Finland thereby proving that you can fool all the people all the time.

53prosfilaes
Jan 10, 2008, 6:22am Top

I don't know if you got the message, Existanai, but sometime, a long time ago, they discovered a technology that could reprint an old book without retranslating it.

54GirlFromIpanema
Edited: Jan 10, 2008, 6:39am Top

#47, prosfilaes:
"What does it say to the Portuguese if no one in Britain has the opportunity to read their equivalent of Dickens in fresh English-language translations?
So what's wrong with the old ones? Are there issues of accuracy?"

The standard German translation of Shakespeare was 150 years old. Painful to read for me. You have to filter through *two* layers of obscurity. For the last 10 years, someone has been working his way through the Bard's works, and there are now bi-lingual editions available in paperback, in a fresh German style. I fell in love with Shakespeare, and the bi-lingual edition gave me the chance of appreciating the original with the help of the translation.

55GirlFromIpanema
Jan 10, 2008, 7:49am Top

Skoobdo found an interesting article on book translation and translation through an intermediary (through a third language):
http://www.librarything.de/talktopic.php?topic=27417
Article:
http://www.complete-review.com/quarterly/vol4/issue4/doubletd.htm

56timspalding
Jan 10, 2008, 2:23pm Top

I'm not really reading all of this—being mostly interested in whether the Cavafy sub-discussion reappears, but two quick points:

He spoke an Austrian dialect (German-speaking minority in Czechy). Austrian (austro-bavarian) dialects are exactly that: dialects. That is undisputed by most Linguists.

Modern linguistics would also recognize no non-arbitrary difference between a language and a dialect. While things cluster, clusters have no inherent hierarchy.

Regarding the number of words in English, while you can make anything definitional, English is an unusually rich language here. So often we got two words, usually English and French, turned one into the unmarked term and gave the other a special meaning. Whether this "matters" I have no strong opinion.

57Existanai
Edited: Jan 10, 2008, 6:27pm Top

"P: I don't know if you got the message, Existanai, but sometime, a long time ago, they discovered a technology that could reprint an old book without retranslating it."

Prosfilaes - 1) there's a reason why new translations are commissioned, marketed and sell well - they're more likely to be bought and read, and they revive interest in or draw attention to authors or books that are notable but have been under the radar for a while, for most people; as GFI explained, a new translation may actually be readable as opposed to the old one; 2) books that go out of print quickly or for which little demand is perceived, are not likely to be reprinted. It's why out of print books get anywhere from a little to some thousand times over their initial retail price. 3) If people have hardly seen or heard of an important writer's books, they're not going to ask for reprints.

It is still possible to buy several books by Eca de Queiroz, new, online, but that's only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. There are a great many other key authors or books who never become known to the public simply because they are not very visible to the public, have been out of print for a long time, and would require a strong, concerted and potentially expensive effort to bring back to print in a new, reliable edition. Alternately, they're only made available in high priced editions which - no surprise - are not bought in large numbers and of course go out of print quickly, again.

For example, the cheapest copy of Robert van Gulik's Sexual Life in Ancient China online costs about $80, and Amazon sells it new for almost $160. It is easily available in a French paperback, however, for a retail price of about 12 Euros or about 18 dollars - the price of an average trade paperback; in Russian, they sell paperback copies for the equivalent of about $3-5.

"Marietherese: the annoying myth of the snowflake specialness of English (and Chinese, and Japanese, and Spanish, and, well, Gruzinic, for all I know) just refuses to die..."

Yes, thank you so much for the post. I didn't want to pursue that topic, on top of the current one, but I'm glad you cleared it up so definitely.

"GFI: Skoobdo found an interesting article on book translation..."

Excellent article, thanks a lot for that post and for the others!

58timspalding
Jan 11, 2008, 3:19am Top

I love that the French edition of Sexual Life in Ancient China is cheap and in print. I'm sorry, but how French.

59Existanai
Edited: Jan 11, 2008, 9:25am Top

T: being mostly interested in whether the Cavafy sub-discussion reappears...

Tim, you might be interested in the writers Lawrence Durrell and Andre Aciman, if you don't know them already.

T: I'm sorry, but how French.

I know you're joking, but I can't resist pointing out: how Russian (Сексуальная жизнь в древнем Китае, 125 roubles or US$5), how Hispanic (La Vida Sexual En La Antigua China - 18 Euros or US$23), how Italian (La vita sessuale nell'antica Cina, 41 Euros or US$60) etc.

Last night I was looking for Jan Patocka's Heretical Essays in the Philosophy of History. It was published only about 10 years ago in paperback at a list price of US$20, but now that it's gone out of print, the cheapest available paperback copies (of the same edition) online cost $160. One enterprising American seller in the US has listed it in the UK Amazon marketplace for £323.54, or US$636.

The same book - out of print, hence now a market for speculators.

In France you can buy a pocketbook version for 8 Euros, or under US$12.

60prosfilaes
Jan 11, 2008, 7:33pm Top

It's about time some of these publishers started working with a print-on-demand service, then, which would keep that market for relatively cheap copies fed.

61Existanai
Edited: Jan 12, 2008, 1:09am Top

P: It's about time some of these publishers started working with a print-on-demand service, then, which would keep that market for relatively cheap copies fed.

I'm glad we agree on something!

There are a couple of print-on-demand services at the moment, actually - the titles cost about $30 a piece, can be bought on Amazon, and being print-on-demand, are rarely very pretty, and are not generally discounted. I guess one can't have everything - either one compromises on low prices to ensure both minimal overheads and availability, or one tries to sell to the broadest possible number and risks an entire business if not market segment.

62Existanai
Jan 12, 2008, 1:09am Top

One of the main problems, as pointed out before, is the underlying model of capitalism taken to excess: instead of publishers being content with competing in a pluralistic marketplace and offering genuine choice and diversity, every successful company becomes subject to short-sighted corporate strategies/whims/interests. Profit is key, quality is frequently perceived as a product of marketing, and cultural concerns are treated like a fringe belief. As Andre Schiffrin - former editor at Pantheon and American publisher of Pasternak and Foucault - explains in his book (referenced above), whereas fifty or even thirty years ago publishers would risk short-term losses in order to keep a book alive and potentially secure a long-term benefit to everyone, the current market demands that books - like Hollywood movies - succeed big, and succeed now, or they are considered deadweight and practically ignored (books even tend to be selected for publication according to the same criteria, and critical voices within a corporation tend to be stifled or gently pushed out so that everyone stays on message) - making it difficult or impossible to publish, even in English, books that might gain little attention now but be of value in retrospect, many years later. Chain bookstores also contribute to the domino effect - since they are the biggest buyers of books, and both buy and return volumes en masse if a title doesn't sell well within three to six months, hugely affecting a publisher's profits/losses, they are also a strong influence on books selected for publication. Since they often operate in huge malls whose visitors generally couldn't care less for obscure books, they wouldn't even have a reason to carry such titles, as it affects their profit per square foot/shelf etc. vs. their rent and other operating costs.

Of course, that isn't the only problem. Apart from chauvinism, cultural ignorance et al, people have to be generally interested in books in the first place, and as the journalistic cliche goes, it is a different era now, where books - which require a minimal degree of literacy and awareness and so on - compete with forms of entertainment that require no effort at all (in, I assume, every country.) I don't think the culture of the book is dying yet, but I do think there might be a major transformation within our lifetimes, with electronic texts and readers and so on becoming a predominant communicative medium, at least among the comfortable classes.

Much as I love the physical aspect of bibliophilia - browsing in a store, touching books, having a library and so on - I sometimes wonder whether there will be any point to owning books at all in the future, whether they will go the way of records and such, and I remember Isaac Asimov's story The Fun They Had, which I loved as a child.

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