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Is the Cliche of the Culturally Insulated American a Myth?

By Edward Nawotka

passport

Today’s lead article by Emily Williams looks at the question of why so few foreign writers make it into print in the US. It’s by know become well known that approximately 3% of books published in the US are translations (and I would guess that number would be significantly smaller as soon as you factor in self-published books).  Williams asserts that the problem rests as much with the limited number of editors who can read a foreign language, as well as with the complicated dance that is involved with selling books to the US.

Williams view opposes the unflattering stereotype that depicts America — and by extension, its readers and publishers — as ignorant of foreign cultures and lacking in curiosity about the outside world.

My personal experience also goes counter to the cliché of the insulated American. Having lived all over the United States, I’ve encountered people from several dozen, if not hundreds of cultures — in my own hometown of Houston, there are large populations of Mexicans, Central and South Americans, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and Pakistanis and people from the Middle East; in contrast, when I lived overseas, in any given country I would typically meet people from a handful of cultures — either from neighboring countries or a former colony or colonizer.  America is, if anything, a nation of immigrants; perhaps the perception that we’re not interested in other cultures is because our culture already contains or has assimilated said cultures.

In addition, the most often cited statistic that very few Americans have passports is taken as further indication of American disinterest. I would argue that there’s a relatively simple explanation for this and it comes down to a key difference between the US and many other counties.  First, America is itself geographically large and diverse, meaning there is lots of room to explore and roam. But, of more importance, is the fact that we limit our vacation to just two weeks per year (and if you have any family obligations — say to visit your parents once a year — that eats up half your holidays). With less time off, there’s less time to travel and even less time to travel abroad.

What do you think? Is the cliché about the cultural ignorant and isolated American a myth? Or is it a sad fact? And if so, what can and should be done to remedy the situation?

Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter using hashtag #ppdiscuss.

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One Comment

  1. Dario
    Posted May 11, 2011 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    As a seven year foreign resident in the US, and 11 years researcher in US foreign policy, I totally disagree with the arguments of Ms. Williams and Mr. Nawotka.
    I can certainly confirm that the US provincialism does matter in explaining the low translation rate at issue.
    The translation gap and passport figures are perfectly in line with other structural data about American’s relationship with the rest of the world.
    None of Williams’ arguments explain why foreign editors – and, ultimately, foreign readers – are so much interested in non-native works in the first place. If you have no interest whatsoever in translating foreign authors, you hardly bother to get appropriate editorial divisions, as foreign publishers do.
    The language barrier argument is absurd, no matter how you use it. For you must still explain why foreign editors are so much better equipped to deal with non-English transcripts than their American counterparts.
    The colonial past argument, while plausible to some extent, is also amply unconvincing. First, European countries with very limited colonial experience, such as Italy, publish an enormous amount of foreign literary works. Secondly, in many former European colonies people speak the language of the former colonizer and submit their manuscripts in that language (it’s obviously the case of former France’s and England’s colonies), which add to, and are NOT included in the translated works. Finally, all former colonial powers in Europe translate a very high volumes of works from countries that were NOT former colonies.
    The low translation rate in America cannot be understood if you do not factor in the provincialism of American educational, media information and cultural system.
    The available evidence shows that relatively few Americans display a significant interest in foreign culture and foreign affairs.
    In order to see this, we first must avoid confounding absolute and relative terms regarding the American population.
    The USA is a very populous country. For starters, a very small percentage of Americans can be still accounted for by a huge amount of people in absolute terms.
    You must bear this in mind constantly while making statements about general trends in the US.
    Based on the last Census data, the US population consists of approximately 310,000,000 people. Now, we may agree that, for example, 5% is hardly a very high percentage, no matter what kind of variable we try to measure. Yet, 5% of Americans represents something like about 15,5 million people.
    If 5% of Americans show substantial interest in foreign cultures, that obviously means that few Americans do.
    Yet, there would still be roughly 15,500,000 Americans who do. In other words, you could meet as many as 15,500,000 Americans across the US who do display such interest.
    This might give you the deceptive impression that “a lot of Americans” are indeed interested in foreign cultures.
    For other structural data clearly suggest otherwise. The following are just the most significant.
    As late as 2006, the National Geographic Society conducted a survey on young Americans’ knowledge of the foreign world. Young Americans were defined as people between 18 and 24 years of age, which includes high school and university graduates : http://www.nationalgeographic.com/roper2006/findings.html.
    Among the dismal results, there are the following:
    “Only 37% of young Americans can find Iraq on a map.
    6 in 10 young Americans don’t speak a foreign language fluently.
    […]
    Half of young Americans can’t find New York on a map.” [!!!]
    Now, obviously the educational system is largely responsible for this outcome, though it is not the only one. In doing a very basic research on geography programs in US schools, you’ll find easily how foreign geography is neglected – isn’t this quite revealing itself?
    However, as I said, education is hardly the only culprit.
    In this respect, the finding about Iraq is especially significant. For you can hardly blame the educational system alone for it. Considering how relentlessly the media were talking about Iraq in 2006, the conclusion is inescapable: only a very limited interest in foreign affairs can explain the survey finding .
    Add to the picture US educational programs in history up to 12th grade. European history is an elective, not required class in most US history programs, even though this is by and large a country of European immigrants.
    Furthermore, US history course usually starts with colonial history and little if nothing is said about pre-existing cultures.
    As to the passport data, Mr. , it is impossible to concur with your view. That is certainly a most compelling evidence of most American’s weak interest in the foreign world.
    Someone who is truly interested in experiencing foreign cultures cannot possibly be content with meeting some foreigners in NY or LA or even just hyphen-Americans.
    You must go abroad. By contrast, if you’ve never made a passport, you’re not even considering going.
    How incredibly arrogant is, anyway, to conclude that meeting foreigners in the US accounts for a foreign culture-experience? And that the US is “geographically large and diverse, meaning there is lots of room to explore and roam”? In countries so much smaller like France and Italy, there’s an artistic, architectural and natural diversity that has hardly anything to envy to the US. Yet, many more French and Italians than Americans hold a passport.
    Also, in bragging about foreign diversity in the US, you tend to forget that ACTUAL-foreigners, NOT HYPHEN-AMERICANS – are concentrated in very few areas of the USA. In most of the country you meet only Americans.
    Furthermore, are you seriously blaming short vacation terms for low passport applications? For real? If so, why couldn’t Americans go to the Caribbean or Latin America in those two weeks? Too far away? As I experienced directly, a vacation to the Dominican Republic can be ludicrously cheap and certainly affordable to most Americans.
    The arguments used in these two articles – overwhelmingly endorsed by the readers – are a very sorrow example of the status of denial in the US.

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