Frank Zappa said, “So many books so little time.” and that is even more true today. We can read self-published authors besides all the traditionally published ones. And English language books are vastly available because English is a Lingua Franca. There is always South Africa or India or any other English speaking country if you are interested in reading books from abroad. So, surely, there is no need to go for books in languages you do not speak?
I experienced translated fiction from a young age and was puzzled by the hesitation in the UK to read it.
I grew up in a reading family where no one ever made a distinction between authors from different countries. My birthday books consisted of “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint Exupery over Astrid Lindgrens “Pipi Longstocking” to “Mallory Towers” by Enid Blyton. Yes, I am so old that I could read Blyton without any cultural criticism ;-). And where we lived, translated fiction was widely available both in books shops and in libraries.
When I came to the UK, I was puzzled when I learned that translated fiction has a rather bad rep. I heard that readers thought translations change the “atmosphere” or “message” of the book or that they did not offer experiences that we can relate to. But there is also the problem that translated fiction isn’t readily available.
The Guardian wrote in 2016 that many booksellers do not speak other languages and therefore can’t discover foreign language books to bring to the UK and push for translation. Also, in Germany or France, school children are offered to read literature translated from other countries. In the UK, though, the curriculum mainly consists of books originally written in English.
To me, that is very sad because you miss out on so many exciting reading experiences and learning about life on different continents, for example. And you simply miss out on great books!
Not reading translated fiction is missing out on exciting reading experiences.
One of my favourite books of all time is “Traveller of the Century” by Andres Neuman. It tells the tale of Hans, who stops for the night in the hypothetical town of Wandernburg but ends up staying much longer. He meets and falls in love with Sophie and discovers that Wandernburg has a constantly changing geography. There is a salon where the who is who of Wandernburg discusses the topics of the day and a cave where philosophers of a strange kind meet. It is also the story of two translators who discover what an adventure translation is.
I loved this story because it mixes magical realism with time travel and fantasy. There is a good dollop of philosophy mixed in but all on a level that everyday people can understand. I found this book after a long time of not knowing what to read. It gave me my love for reading and exploring back.
If I thought translated fiction gave me a “different” experience than the original book, I would have missed out on an adventure down the European centuries. And one of the best love stories I’ve ever read.
When reading translated fiction, you can discover other countries from within.
Another great read was “The Fat Years” by Chan Koonchung. It’s another fantastical story, this time from China. In a fictional 2013, China has taken over as world leader as America and Europe did not recover from a financial crisis. However, China’s citizens experience different timelines, as some remember 28 days in which bad things happened. This book has never been published in China as it criticizes autocratic government actions.
Chan Koonchung wrote the story like a crime novel, and from the different points of view of its main characters, which captivated me totally. I also found it exciting to see life from a Chinese point of view. We do not hear much about everyday life in China unless you are a TEFL teacher and teach Chinese children or live there. I think that is a shame because it would help us lose our fear of the unknown. When it comes down to it, all everyday citizens in every country just want to make a living and have peace for their children. It’s mostly not in their power what their political leaders are up to. We can just hope that our politicians mean us well.
If I was hesitant to read translated fiction, I would have missed that point of view.
Reading translated fiction means discovering even more great books.
Yes, I know I said at the beginning that we have enough great novels and books to read in English. We really do not need to read books translated from other countries too. FOMO when it comes to reading is as bad as it is in other parts of our life. However, you can rediscover this excitement you had as a child when you discovered something new when reading authors from other languages. For me, it is like travelling to the realms of these authors and their countries. And I would not want to miss that for the world.
Do you read translated fiction?
Over to you: Do you read translated fiction? And if not, why not?
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You can do it!