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Ignorant of the fact of being ignorant

By Paul Doolan - posted Monday, 12 May 2008

There is a joke doing the rounds that goes as follows:

What do we call people raised speaking many languages - multilingual. What do we call people raised speaking two languages - bilingual. What do we call those poor souls raised speaking only one language - native English speakers.

Some years ago Yale historian Paul Kennedy became involved in a polemic in the pages of Harpers Magazine with the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said regarding the health of Arab culture. Kennedy figured that he had hit the nail on the head when he reported that, over a period of five years, only 360 works of literature had appeared in Arabic translation. This, he claimed, proved that the Arab world was incurious, closed and in trouble.


But as a reader pointed out in a letter to the editor, the number of translations into English that had appeared in America over the same period was, well, about 360! Only nine of these had been translated from Arabic. In other words, we (I’m using the term loosely, to refer to Anglophones - those burdened with the disadvantage of being so called “native” English speakers) don’t know the Arab world, we don’t read their literature, we are not in the slightest bit curious regarding what their intellectuals and artists have to say, but that doesn’t stop us from condemning their customs and invading their countries. And then we act surprised at the reception we receive.

Of course it’s not just the Arab world that we refuse to get to know. Only once in the history of the New York Times bestseller’s list has a novel that originally had been published in another language reached position number one - The Reader by Bernard Schink, translated from German.

British readers are at least as ignorant as their American cousins. While in Germany about 50 per cent of books that appear are translations, and even in Argentina, with its wealth of Spanish language literature to draw from, translations form half of all books published, in Britain translations make up about 2 per cent of literary publications.

Occasionally a well-tested exception slips through. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose (original language, Italian), had sold a couple of million copies in German before its appearance in English. Joostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World (original language, Norwegian) sold 600,000 copies in German before an English version could be risked. Germans read the works of contemporary Dutch authors, Norwegians read the newest Italian writers and the Dutch read everyone, in the original preferably, or in translation otherwise.

The situation in Australia is probably the worst in the entire world, for, with a few notable exceptions, Australians are dependent on the few translations that dribble in from the already malnourished world of American and British publishing.

The sense of desperation is clearly expressed in the Sydney PEN website: “How much of the world are we reading about?” Deputy Chair of Sydney PEN Translation Committee Nicholas Jose adds: “Time and again translation is rendered invisible, forgotten, not in the budget, airbrushed out, and I want to know why.”


What makes this all particularly upsetting is the stubborn pride we take in our own ignorance. When Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, not surprisingly, the Anglophone chorus went loudly “Who?” Indeed George Szirtes responded in the Times Literary Supplement (October 18, 2002) tongue in cheek, with an article entitled “Who is Imre Kertesz?” Only two of his works had ever appeared in English, published by small American university presses. None had appeared in Britain, not to mention Australia. But the German world did not react with a “Who?” as six of his novels had been translated from the original Hungarian into German.

When Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek won the prize in 2004, some British “literary” journalists, wallowing in their own ignorance, were heard to boast that it was all a deliberate ploy to fool the English-speaking world. No folks, the Swedish Academy doesn’t sit around deliberating “How can we fool the Brits, Irish, Australians, Canadians (the English speaking ones) etc. this year?” They don’t need to. It is we who are doing the fooling, pathetic fools twice over.

Actually, the situation is even worse than the dire issue of translations would lead us to believe. Of course “we” have Indian writers like Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth, who happen to write in our language, no translation needed. Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka are immediately accessible and, for the adventurous, there is Ken Saro-Wiwa and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. But the average Pakistani educated middle-class reader knows Shakespeare in the original language as well as you do.

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About the Author

Paul Doolan teaches history at Zürich International School, Switzerland and lectures in Political Systems at the College for International Citizenship in Birmingham, England.

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