by John O’Brien in Dalkey Archive’s Context seems to have annoyed some folk at Three Percent, who’ve taken it that O’Brien’s reference to
philistinism is aimed at them. On the whole, reading the article, I sense it probably isn’t: but then again, there might be more to this in-fighting
in the world of American translation publishing than is printed on the internet. (On the whole, we don’t recognise arguments using the word
“philisitine”, just as we don’t recognise arguments using the word “hypocrite” – except when applied to Piers Morgan – since they tend to say a lot
more about the writer than the writee).
Whether or not three percent is an accurate figure does not much concern us: we are, after all, readers
rather than publishers, and our own bookcases are about 90% translations (at a rough estimate, and without actually getting an intern to count them).
On the other hand, the article seems to argue that translated works, in terms of potential quality, should be treated on the same level as
untranslated works: i.e. works should not just be considered likely to be better simply because they’ve been translated. This sounds a fair enough
argument, but I don’t in essence think it’s true. In general, it seems to me, translated works are very much likely to be better than untranslated
works, simply because they’ve been translated: that is to say, someone’s considered a work in a foreign language to be worthy of translation and has
then put in the effort to get it translated. (Daniel Hahn makes much the same contention in this interesting article).
On the question of whether
reading books in translation broadens our horizons and makes us better people, we remain a bit more ambivalent. Probably there is some truth in it –
just as, say, the Enlightenment was partly brought about by the observation that other civilisations had grown up in the world which weren’t based on
feudalistic Christianity: – but I read translations because I’m broad-minded, or I’m broad-minded because I read translations – or, in the end,
neither of the above. Perhaps the novel is just a westernising form anyway (it often seems to me remarkable how many, say, Chinese / Japanese writers
have been educated at western universities), so that we’re only getting the rest of the world as filtered through our own media, designed already for
our delectation. But, as I feel about those lists of books about Britishness the other day, they don’t really get down to explaining Britishness at
all – probably, I suppose, because that’s rarely the purpose of the novel.