« English Language, Resources

Literary Broccoli: Why Cliches about Translations Hurt Books

Translations shouldn’t be treated as “literary broccoli” or “armchair travel” and doing so is counterproductive.

By Michael Stein

Some of the ways writing in translation is promoted are counterproductive and off the mark. Tangled up in the good intentions of its advocates are some false and longstanding myths.

Translations should not be fed to readers as "cultural vegetables"

As anyone who has paid attention to this journal over the past three years knows, literature in translation has many passionate advocates and continues to be a hot topic. Scores of articles have been devoted to it, books are being written about it and then even more commentary as these books are published. Bloggers continue to debate claims and counterclaims, often passionately, and frequently take an adversarial us vs. them attitude. Then there is the matter of the literature itself — all the actual novels and poems being translated — that set these discussions off in the first place.

In the often far too blinkered, provincial world of English-language books, this has been a refreshing phenomenon.

And yet old myths die hard. I suspect that some of the misconceptions that have clung to writing in translation most persistently have done so, ironically, because they are voiced by its advocates, by people admirably interested in broadening our reading base beyond the proverbial 3% of books translated from foreign languages into English.

Here are a pair of commonly implied or openly stated beliefs regarding literature in translation that I think would be helpful to cast off sooner rather than later:

1: It’s good for you?

In 2011 a debate arose between film critics at the New York Times over the values and merits of watching long, self-styled art films. What set it off was a confession by one critic that he was no longer willing to force himself to eat his “cultural vegetables,” no matter how good for him he knew they were.

The argument is relevant for the presentation of writing in translation not so much for the issues the critics fought over – deep vs. shallow, rewards of difficult art vs. sacrifice of time and patience – but because translated literature so typically is put in the default “cultural vegetable” category, again often with the best of intentions.

The truth is though that literature in translation contains more than its fair share of juicy, mouthwatering meat.

Of course, you can tell people that reading books from all corners of the globe is good for you. It’s not necessarily a lie. It just happens not to be very helpful, and can transform some of the truly vibrant and exciting writing being done around the world into literary broccoli the way Shakespeare’s dramas of murder, passion and betrayal take on the effect of tranquilizers in the mouths of uninspired high school teachers.

An antidote to this mentality can be found in the recent surge in European crime fiction, which though it can be highly sophisticated is often simply too brutal and sinister to fit in the vegetable category.

The Stieg Larsson phenomenon is the most visible face of this growing trend and the search for the next Scandinavian and European crime writing sensation has led to translations of crime writers from all over the Continent. Last November, the 8th annual Festival of European Literature in New York was devoted to European crime writers such as Zygmunt Miłoszewski (Poland), Jan Costin Wagner (Germany) and José Carlos Somoza (Spain), showing that talented crime writers aren’t confined to a particular country or region.

While Scandinavian writers like Jo Nesbø retain a higher profile publishers have a large territory to search out new writers, such as HarperCollins’ recent publication of Hungarian Vilmos Kondor’s Budapest Noir.

One can only hope that all the murder and bloodshed coming from Europe will finally kill off the notion of translated literature having nutritious value.

2; Reading in translation is another way of experiencing a foreign country?

I will defer to Stieg Larsson again. Have you ever been to Sweden? Were you attacked by rightwing lunatics and tortured? Did you get caught up in tangled, historical conspiracies and eat immense amounts of fast food while sitting on IKEA furniture? Unlikely — except perhaps for the fast food — and I don’t think the fact that the trilogy won’t get the standard tourist board treatment has hurt sales too much (though you can, apparently, take a city tour of real world sites from the books).

There are certain books that can show you certain facets of certain countries but this notion reduces novels to something approaching travel books without their authors having any say in the matter. Imagine someone hoping to partake of the American experience by reading Hemingway. Which book would they choose? The Sun Also Rises? For Whom the Bell Tolls? Whoops, but that’s France and Spain. Hemingway’s novels are read for how good they are; the same should be true of novels in translation.

There are many good books and bad books written in Sweden, the US, India and Argentina. The key isn’t sorting through the list of countries but between the good and bad (hint: there are infinitely more bad books than good books, so this selection process is already difficult enough).

Difficult and challenging works of literature will continue to be translated, but the high end of the spectrum shouldn’t limit the full range of good books that could prove successful in the English-language market. Crime writing is only one example of a genre with crossover potential, but there are also science-fiction, romance and travel books from around the world that are singular and well-written enough to appeal to a broader audience.

While finding the gems of international writing may be more challenging than picking from among more accessible work in English, it is this very obstacle that will allow publishers to choose from the best of the best. Is there a Stieg Larsson of Spanish romance or Japanese science-fiction writers? Are there Romanian novelists whose work will appeal to readers of John Irving? Perhaps, but there is no way of telling without publishers broadening their search for quality work and leaving behind some of the outmoded preconceptions attached to translated writing.

DISMISS: Could Translated Genre Books Other than Thrillers Sell?

Michael Stein works as a journalist/writer in Prague where he started the blog literalab in December 2010, which focuses on Central and Eastern European writing. He has written for a number of European and American magazines. His literary and cultural articles have been published on Czech Position, Publishing Perspectives, Readux, Absinthe: New European Writing and other publications. His fiction appeared most recently in The Medulla Review, Drunken Boat and has previously been published in journals such as McSweeney’s, Pindeldyboz and Café Irreal among others.

This entry was posted in English Language, Resources and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.


  1. Posted March 16, 2012 at 7:05 am | Permalink

    Translated literature in my view is very important: it’s the tip of the iceberg, the beginning of a New Age in literature. Actually, the classics are often translated literature, starting with Tolstoy, Balzac, Goethe.

    Because the classics are that way, it doesn’t mean that every bit of translated literature has necessarily got to partake in the grandeur of the classics. Sure they can be thrillers like Stieg Larsson’s. In this category, by the way, I’d love to add Cammilleri, the Sicilian writer (a wonder really: he’s over 80 and a roaring success in Italy including with several TV series about his hero Commissario Montalbano, a Sicilian policeman, that are watched with delight by millions of viewers – including me)

    But I believe something else is happening: we are slowly moving towards a “globalized” literature, where stories can take place anywhere on this planet – from India to Indiana – and yet have a “global” value – meaning for every reader no matter where he hails from. The days of literature steeped in a region or “terroir” as the French call it are certainly numbered if not yet quite over. The first writer perhaps who could be considered universal in this manner was Nabokov, a Russian who eventually published in German and met with success in America, writing directly in English. So Lolita is really the first global best-seller.I am sure there will be many others and that the phenomenon of writers finding success in a language other than their mother tongue will become increasingly a common, every day occurence…

  2. Posted March 16, 2012 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    dear reading mind…

    my first profession was translating/interpreting

    i am still working as a voracious reading + writing + publishing mind focusing on the contents of the words available in another language learnt in the country concerned
    to find the rhythm…the honesty…the climbing into the original writers’ mind caves demands trained insight

    there is the original of the authoring person and the second hand mind of the translating mind and very often their background is ever so different

    and then there is the reading mind who changes the original tailored txt and manipulates it with the two versions using the relative own mind scape

    adaptation is a recreating game

    there is no right nor wrong but a different

    the eternal appetite and demand for crime is rather obvious since humans are made of cruel stuff

    txts about love are bubble dream works

    txts about hate are reality of the daily mass media

    the bible and the shakepeare…who wants to take them to the desert island?

    smiles from hewesufa

  3. Posted March 16, 2012 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    In my experience, a translation is the shadow of the original.
    If a work of art, it is another original. It should be read for its own merits.
    Most translations betray the original. That is why most writers hate to be translated. They may like the money, but not the translation.
    Most people who love an author end by reading him in his own language because that is the only way to really enjoy his work.
    Most translators know this and struggle against their limitations but, as they know very well, the trick is to catch the soul of the language, not only the right word. To catch the soul of a foreign language may be a task longer than a human life.

  4. Joe Cooke
    Posted March 16, 2012 at 11:14 pm | Permalink

    Literature that exults in life is rare. You may find in certain poets, at times, a sense of the rich abundance of emotion and miracle in human existence. But this celebration of life is sadly rare, even among poets. Writers of fiction or drama, stress the peril of characters or the irony of their situation, in order to engage the reader in the dynamics of the plot. But a true literary artist uses the dramatic tension in narrative as an opportunity to introduce humanizing insights into the character and situation, and through painterly description, original metaphor and haunting symbolism to make this experience moving and evocative. If you step from one language to another, you find a different tradition of language, different figures and concerns. It is as necessary to literary art as it is to musical or visual art. Readers as well as writers need this experience. Translation is a help, but not a substitute for deep reading in the literature of a foreign language. But yes, I do believe that we need to explore a broader range of genres for our source texts, because otherwise we are only perpetrating pejoratives about foreign culture, and catering to depraved tastes. Why do we demand of such high standards of social behavior, education and law when we indulge the immoral and disturbed tendencies in literature and film? Is this the schizophrenia of a covert authoritarianism, criminalizing creativity as non-conformity, therefore as social risk?

  5. John Penuel
    Posted March 18, 2012 at 9:09 am | Permalink

    Yes, as many people have mentioned before, the “it’s-good-for-you” school of promoting literature in translation is counterproductive. But the fact is that, as it’s often hard to enjoy them on their own terms, far too many of the translations brought out by small presses in the U.S. lend themselves all too well to this method of promotion and to this method only.

    I have nothing against the books of the foreign crime writers that are being translated into English, but there’s a fairly large group of readers that is badly underserved by the publishers of work in translation: those of us who don’t necessarily want to read books featuring mass murderers, terrorists, detectives, and police inspectors, who don’t read books because we are told they are “hip” or because we think they will better us, those of us who appreciate fairly traditional forms, irony, and simplicity.

    It has become a cliché to mention that only 3% of the books published in English every year are translations (I suspect that the figure is actually lower), but what is almost never mentioned is that even in that measly figure there are a lot of books that shouldn’t have been translated in the first place.

  6. Posted March 25, 2012 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    Translating Peter Handke’s A Journey to the Rivers (Viking) and, forthcoming in May, his play Voyage by Dugout (PAJ), I most enjoy how the German, and specifically Handke’s German, bends and pull and challenges and reshapes the English language.

    This, of course, is what Walter Benjamin claimed in The Task of the Translator.

  7. Posted May 22, 2012 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    I should say, as a lot as I enjoyed reading what you had to say, I couldnt assist but shed interest soon after a even though. Its as in case you had a amazing grasp on the subject matter, but you forgot to consist of your readers. Maybe you need to think about this from far far more than 1 angle. Or possibly you shouldnt generalise so considerably. Its better should you think about what others could need to say instead of just going for a gut reaction towards the topic. Consider adjusting your own believed process and giving other people who may possibly read this the benefit of the doubt.

  8. Posted June 3, 2012 at 8:32 am | Permalink

    Translation is the key to all other peoples and cultures. Original and translated text can never be the same. Each translator remains something of yourself when translated, but this is the only way we can touch the work of the author.

  9. Posted June 5, 2012 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    excellent points altogether, you simply received a logo new reader. What may you suggest in regards to your publish that you made a few days in the past? Any positive?

  10. P. Lonka
    Posted July 8, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    Translating the novel is quite standard but when it comes to poetry and poems never not approach a copy of the original.

  • Get Publishing Perspectives in your inbox each day and stay up-to-date on international publishing.