Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Global Interest

Sometimes it is very hard to find books by authors from a certain country. Venezuala is proving particularly problematic at the moment. I've investigated a list of authors, searching for their works online and on Amazon for volumes of poetry or novels with limited luck - apparently some works in Spanish are available (at a price, naturally) but only two authors appear to have works published in English that are available through Amazon, and generally Amazon is a fair indicator of what is out there. In addition to the limited availability of translated authors, I can't afford to keep buying books from every country: doubly annoying when no library in the southwest of England contains anything by either of the Venezualan authors I have identified. It isn't especially a problem as such at the moment, just more of an annoyance. But is could become a problem later on - there are approximately 180 countries in the world which gives me a lot to choose from (in theory) - I only have to find books from around half the countries out there, right? Only I'm starting to worry that maybe books from half the countries out there will prove harder to find than I had anticipated.

I've been thinking over the last couple of days along two lines - firstly, why isn't there more of an interest in literature from other countries? And secondly, why can't I (as a highly educated individual) read in more languages? I only did Spanish for GCSE level at school when I was 16, and haven't spoken it at all in the seven year interval since, so there is no way I could tackle anything from Venezuala in the original. I would quite like to be able to read Spanish fluently though; Neruda is one of my favourite poets and I hear that his peoms lose a lot in translation. But more than that, writers from certain countries seem to take it for granted that they should be able to read novels and poems in languages other than their native tongues - French, English, Japanese and Russian (in the case of Chinese authors), yet I cannot imagine many writers in the UK being able to read fluently in a European language. Does anyone read Balzac or Zola in the original French besides academics? And does it really matter? Just because I think so, and feel slightly ashamed for what I perceive to be a British cultural failing (general widespread lack of interest in other languages/cultures and not just limited to literature), should it even be something of significance? Perhaps my perceptions are entirely incorrect; but I feel that more interest inthe world's societies and cultures can only be a good thing, and we could do worse than literature as a medium for imparting a little awareness.


Stefanie said...

This is an American cultural failing too. I don't speak another language either. I fulfilled my school requirements with Spanish in high school and German in college and never went beyond that. I've been thinking about learning Spanish again since I have several coworkers who are bilingual I'd at least be able to practice. But I've not made it from thinking about it to doing it yet. I agree though that the number of books in translation is disappointing.

tanabata said...

I agree, the books that get translated into English is very pitiful. Interestingly, or perhaps not surprising at all, I found when looking for some Scandinavian lit a couple years ago that they were often translated to other European languages like French, Italian, and what not, but not into English. And I'm sure that happens a lot. Sad.
I also regularly wish I could read easily in another language or 2. I could perhaps struggle through French, but would need a dictionary near by, and it's a challenge so I tend not to, especially since I mostly read in bed at night so it's not really conducive to notebooks and dictionaries. sigh.

Dark Orpheus said...

I agree on how difficult it is to find English translations sometimes. But I think UK publishers have a wider range of works in translation in print then American publishers.

Often when I do sourcing for translations, I realise it's only available via UK, or the US edition has gone out of print.

It seems market forces are also at work. Translating is not a high-paying industry, yet it requires a certain degree of education for decent work.

Is it simply a case of comfort? It takes more effort to learn another language and to take time to develop fluency in it.

While I can function in English and Chinese, I realise I read very little Chinese literature, simply because everyday life functions primarily in English. My Chinese is suffering from lack of practice.

If there is a Chinese author I am interested in, I usually look for the original Chinese version first. But reading the Chinese edition too slowly often means I may give up on the book.

litlove said...

Have you tried alibris.co.uk? I've been finding books there that I can't get hold of on amazon. I can't imagine the Venezualan publishing industry to be very prominent, which might explain the difficulty in part. But I think a good translation of a foreign text is every bit as good as the original provided you can get hold of them!

Dorothy W. said...

I wish I could read in other languages too. I worked pretty hard on German for a while, but have had a long interval without studying it, and I forget so fast. Best of luck finding translations -- it's such a interesting project you've got going here; it seems like you're learning so much from it.

Danielle said...

I think you are right it is sort of sad that so few foreign authors are translated into english. I can speak passable Spanish, but I am not sure I could read a long spanish text--probably something easy and with a lot of perseverence. I'm not sure if you have this service at your library, but you might try and interlibrary loan a book. Even though your local library may not have something, another one somewhere else may have just the book. It might require a fee for the postage, but it would save money in the long run. If you look at :
You can search for titles and find out which libraries have the book. Good luck in your search!

Orange Blossom Goddess (aka Heather) said...

I've also thought about the fact that I'm not fluent in other languages. Toronto, Ontario, Canada is said to be one of the most multicultural cities in the world, Canada is an officially bilingual (English/French) country and yet I only -barely- get by in French and Spanish. I know mere words in a few other languages but could definitely NOT carry on a conversation. As a university History and Art History major I've always thought it one of my great failings that I didn't keep up my French and Spanish, become proficient and study my Masters and PhD (needed a romance language in order to do so). Best of luck finding the translations you are searching for.

Imani said...

I took Spanish A-levels so I am fairly competent in reading Spanish lit straight. I read some Borges and all my Lorca in the original Spanish and yes, yes believe me translations never quite match the original literature's language because one actually thinks differently when speaking and writing each. That doesn't mean people should not read translations of course but there are advantages to knowing more than one language.

My ease in reading Spanish never quite matches my English though. I have a new roommate who speaks Spanish, so I've been trying to keep at it.

Have you tried any of the university libraries? I would imagine that they, at least, would have an investment in getting foreign literature (although translations might be a problem).

Melanie said...

...Everything that Heather said! Even though I'm Canadian my French is pathetic. I can read it, slowly, with dictionary if it's above about a grade 9 level. I never went on to do my history MA partly because my French wasn't good enough. When I read translations, I think I'm searching for that phantom difference in thinking that Imani mentions, but I know I'll never quite get it. Sigh.

The Traveller said...

Great comments everyone, and thanks to those who provided links. It's interesting that other people share some of my thoughts - I have friends who view languages purely as a cv booster, and while they enjoy travelling, display no interest in languages. I find that very strange!