The Jaipur Literature Festival took place over the weekend, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve never thought about it before: “Jaipur, India has a literary festival?” But The Guardian published a super-fun recap, “Translation in America & American Lit Dissed at Jaipur Literature Festival,”of one of Jaipur’s more interesting panels from the weekend: “The Global Novel” (which you can watch in full online here), with Chinese/British writer Xiaolu Guo, Indian/American Jhumpa Lahiri, and American/American Jonathan Franzen.
And my Facebook and Twitter feeds have been BLOWING UP with everybody chiming in about this panel. Why? Well, probably because everybody dissed American literature, including Guo dissing J-Franz to his face, and Guo and Jhumpa Lahiri both emphasized the lack of American attention to translations. Lahiri, however, tried to make the valid point that Americans don’t read enough translations, but ended up declaring that publishers in America aren’t putting enough energy into translation, which is a completely separate argument, and an untrue one at that. So here’s a quick recap from The Guardian:
A session on the global novel in Jaipur on Saturday saw the Chinese/British writer Guo, one of Granta‘s best of young British novelists who has also been shortlisted for the Orange prize, attack the way “our reading habit has totally been transformed by the mainstream”.
“Our reading habit has been stolen and changed” said Guo. “For example I think Asian literature is much less narrative … but our reading habit is more Anglo-Saxon, more American … Nowadays all this narrative [literature is] very similar, it’s so realism, so story-telling driven … so all the poetry, all the alternative things, have been pushed away by mainstream society.”
“I love your work, Jonathan,” she told Franzen, “but in a way you are smeared by English American literature … I think certain American literature is overrated, massively overrated, and I really hate to read them,” she said.
Whoa Guo!!!!!!!!!!!! And then Jhumpa’s foot-in-mouth problem:
The Pulitzer-winning Indian/American Jhumpa Lahiri also laid into America’s literary culture, saying that it was “shameful the lack of translation, the lack of energy put into translation in the American market”. “It is embarrassing, to me, and I think just getting out of America for a little while makes you much more conscious of that,” said Lahiri, who currently lives in Italy and has not read anything in English for the last two years.
“I was looking at [an Italian paper’s] 10 best books of the year, and they chose seven books written in English. This was astonishing to me,” she said. “I can’t imagine the New York Times ever choosing seven books written in a language other than English as their choices.”
Lahiri found the focus on English “distressing … because it has a certain power and a certain readership and a certain commercial currency now”, and she feels “there is so much literature that needs to be brought forward, and the danger now is that it’s getting even less exposure”.
Look, Jhumpa, fair enough, I wish the NY Times would choose seven translated titles at the end of the year too, but as Chad Post notes over at Three Percent (American Literature Is “Massively Overrated” [How to Turn a Positive Article into a Rant]), there are plenty of publishers putting damn good work into bringing great translations into English:
I’ve been on about the number of books published in translation in America since the inception of this blog, and I do feel like the number could and should be higher. There are only so many books you get to read in your lifetime—and even fewer that have a life-changing impact on you—and for those books to remain locked off from readers . . . Also, this was the promise of the Internet—everything available from everywhere at any time—and the backbone of the long tail theory.
But let’s put that aside. As of now, I’ve identified 484 works of previously untranslated works of fiction and poetry that came out in 2013, and although this is a very modest number—how many of these have Lahiri or Franzen read? And shit, I know a lot of people who have put in a LOT of time and energy and whatever into translating, publishing, and promoting these 484 works. And I’ll bet like 5 of them were invited to Jaipur, and, and this is speculation, that these panelists know next to no details about the vibrancy of the translation scene in America. They know one thing—the number of translated books per year is paltry—and then use this to categorize the entirety of translation publishing in the U.S.
The problem is less about solely increasing the number of translations being published and more about reaching readers, those same readers who are presumably reading works written in English by Jonathan Franzen, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Xiaolu Guo instead of anything in translation, as Chad sums up:
I’m all for popular authors sounding off on issues like this, but I’m kind of sick of them using the platform to lament something they’re only tangentially involved with. Use the Jaipur festival to sing the praises of Archipelago Books or Melville House or Restless Books. Talk about the recent increases in quality fiction from Russia and Brazil. Speak in specifics—this is the Age of Information and all that you need to know to make an intelligent comment on the translation situation is at your fingertips.
Sal Robinson from Melville House also wrote a killer followup to this Jaipur panel, “Jaipur Literature Festival becomes the place where everyone goes to dump on American literature” noting the problems with American dominance of global reading culture, along with the complexities of language and translation as markers of identity in the literary world for both Lahiri and Guo:
Of course, one might ask on what grounds Lahiri doesn’t consider herself part of the mainstream, or of American literature. And all such scolding of American literature for being insular, narrative-obsessed, and generally childish can sometime have an element of self-serving snobbishness about it, particularly when it’s being done by American writers who somehow, deep into their careers, seem surprised to discover that other literary cultures not only exist but interact with yet other literary cultures in ways that are not exactly like the way American literary culture interacts with the rest of the world, i.e. pretty thuggishly.
But, discounting those elements of the discussion, Lahiri and Guo, especially, ended up making a number of very incisive points about language and publishing that warrant further thought. For instance, Guo, who writes in both English and Chinese, said that she writes in English for both intellectual and pragmatic reasons: on the one hand, she finds that writing in English frees her up from certain burdens having to do with Chinese identity and the ideological background.
On the other hand, Guo commented that writing in English means not only that her novels will reach English-language audiences faster, but also more fully, acknowledging that translated novels rarely have the impact — or even the chance for an impact — that novels written in English do.
I love that this panel is getting so much debate in the American literary world. But then again, is it? The Guardian covered it and brought it to the attention of the American translation-publishing world, and that’s where I’ve been reading all of the great commentary, from those of us with a vested interest in promoting world literature (thus enriching whatever concept the “global novel” is). But there is a haunting echo of crickets coming from the American press about the panel, which is not surprising, since it would only make sense for the American literary community to ignore any debate over the “global novel,” when all that seems to matter in American letters is English-original literature: that’s what gets read, reviewed, put on year-end lists, to the detriment of our entire literary culture. They’re not going to review, discuss, or even read translation events in New York (tonight is the amazing online translation journal Asymptote’s Third Anniversary Party at the Housing Works Bookstore in NYC, not that I would ever know about it if not directly from Asymptote), so why would they be interested in covering a panel about these problems from Jaipur?
It’s an uphill battle to publish world literature, but it is vital, it is necessary to provide an alternative to the homogenous state of literature that Guo describes so well. But we get the mainstream, even the smartest and most engaged readers like Lahiri, aware of the efforts of publishers like Deep Vellum, Open Letter, or Melville House, as we attempt to enrich our global literary culture by publishing all the poetry, all the alternative things.