The Marginalization of Non-English-Speaking Authors

As you may have noticed, I took an unscheduled sabbatical from this blog. As I worked to complete my Masters thesis and coursework, my schedule was in urgent need to pare down–regrettably this blog was among some of the items I pared down on. However, I come back renewed and eager to continue sharing current events and relate these to our livelihood as writers in a sea of ever-changing marketplace forces.

Today’s interesting bit comes to us from the website of UK newspaper The Guardian: Orhan Pamuk attacks ‘marginalisation’ of non-English writers. I find the story’s headline not only attention-grabbing but factual. Although the publishing industry spans a number of continents and languages, we do not realize in full the extent of how clique-ish publishers–and readers–can become.

The recent global crisis was definitely a time when companies battened down the hatches and refocused on their core areas. However, it undoubtedly had an exacerbating effect on an already-existing gap in what international books and authors make it through to the US market.

We inadvertently closed ourselves off from other cultures, perspectives, and themes. Mr. Pamuk, the Nobel Prize winning author who’s extensively quoted in The Guardian’s story, fumes that we’re ignoring “the majority of human experience”  because “the literature that describes it is not written in English.”

However, Mr. Pamuk does promote some healthy conversation, with the points he makes in his rather inflammatory rant. I have read a number of books in English which were originally in another language (Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Isabel Allende), and sometimes–but not always–read the original language versions at a later time. Alas, not everyone can pick up a book in its original language! One of the things I’m very sensitized to, as a life-long translator, is the inexact science that translating prose, fiction, and poems can be. It’s a catch 22 type of situation.

As a writer and avid reader, I’m myself ashamed that my own source of information about new internationally-authored books might come from a recent–sometimes older–New York Times Best Sellers List–after all, besides listening to NPR and BBC World Service, there aren’t really that many sources for this type of information readily available to a casual reader, now are there? Not to mention that particular themes and world regions are completely uninteresting to an average, American reader. Which is a shame.

Mr. Pamuk goes on to say “You are squeezed and narrowed down, cornered down as a writer whose book is considered only the representation of his national voice and a little bit of anthropological curiosity.” That’s yet another reason why a healthy balance and supply of internationally-authored books remove the stigma of “museum specimen” for those few who do break through–like Mr. Pamuk, here.

I recently completed reading the Millennium Books, a trilogy by writer Stieg Larsson–who is mentioned in the story by The Guardian. I was immediately struck by a strong urge to find out as much as I could about Scandinavian open faced sandwiches after reading his books. It’s definitely a piquing of cultural curiosity, but this interest has also made me appreciate other arts from the Scandinavian countries as well–such as the recent rush of excellent Swedish movies, like Let The Right One In, The Seventh Seal, and My Life as a Dog.

I’m under the impression that this gap in international author visibility is as much due to our role as (electronic or print) book consumers  to create enough demand for particular genres and authors. Wouldn’t this cause publishing houses to feel obligated to comply with a good supply? Healthy demand equates to revenue after all.

In regards to Mr. Pamuk’s angry outbursts at the critics…well we can all commiserate. Who hasn’t been secretly, deeply wounded by any type of critique on our writing, constructive or otherwise? Is it perhaps the case that Mr. Pamuk’s writing is being put under a particularly harsh spotlight because he’s a Nobel Prize winner? Are our expectations too high, such as for actors who win an Oscar?

I believe that as a writer, Mr. Pamuk is mostly trying to address the existing language or cultural barrier that some critics may not be aware of. I’ve oftentimes heard stories on NPR about Arabic poems not being translateable into English, because the particular word choice was made to religiously mesh with the harmony and cadence of the musical instrument that accompanies the reading. The beauty of the piece would be lost in its entirety if it were communicated in English. Yet…any avid reader would know to take a little grain of salt when reading material that’s not in its original language.

So we can blame a number of players here: the economy, publishers, readers…I think Mr. Pamuk has done us a great favor by starting us thinking on how cultures come across in writing, how writers and their works gain visibility, and how our role as consumers impacts what’s available for us to read.

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2 responses to “The Marginalization of Non-English-Speaking Authors

  1. Completely agree with the translation argument, it has provided a few laughs and head-shaking. I love the fact I can pick up any French book and read it without any problems. It does open the mind to read authors whose mother tongue is not the same as yours. I also find it influences my own writing at times as I might at times find another turn of phrase due to the fact I can write in both English and French.
    Such a shame I think to not learn from other cultures. I also read Japanese authors like Ogawa and Murakami, although I can’t read Japanese unfotunately.
    Lovely to read you Jessica, love your post.

  2. Thank you so much for taking the time. I should start reading more French, even if it’s magazines, to get reacquainted with the little I know of it. Lovely hearing from you!

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