Having had the chance to travel a fair amount in my life so far, I have been confronted with many different cultures. Some were closer to mine than others, but all were a new experience that came with its own struggles and lessons. I’ve come to realise that it’s always difficult to get a complete picture of a place and its people. Depending on the time I stayed, and the situation I was in (study, holiday, exchange…), I got to experience different aspects of these cultures, including art, language, and food. When I came back home, I wanted to dive into another aspect: the literature. However, the task proved harder than I anticipated.
In my opinion, there are two main reasons for this difficulty to immerse oneself into foreign literature: translation and publicity.
During my BA, I did some translation work for a website and I realised how complicated of a process it is. A poor translation can truly harm the sanctity of a work by compromising its meaning. For widely-spoken languages like English or Spanish, good translators are easily found. However, for works written in certain rare dialects or in languages that are structurally very different, the task is more difficult. In my Russian literature course, the professor talked a lot about translation, and how one work can be translated in multiple ways. We read different versions of the same excerpt from Pushkin’s Onegin and the contrast was enormous. Personally, I don’t read a lot of translated works because the majority of what I read is written in French or English. I’m always scared that if I don’t read a book in its original form, I will miss what the author is trying to convey. Moreover, I almost never read translated poetry because there is so much importance given to every single word in this genre that I fear a translation will automatically lose some of the work’s essence. However, my BA has taught me to overcome this apprehension by showing me that great translations exist and that you can still take away a lot from them. Reading translated works is something I want to do more of in the future and I don’t believe translation to be the biggest stopper to reading diversely.
Indeed, I believe that the way books are advertised internationally is fundamental to a growth of diverse reading. Despite living in a globalised world, our literature remains fairly tied to the language we speak. Being in France at the moment, the only literatures I am easily exposed to are French and anglophone. Moreover, most of the international literature that is easily accessible consists of classics and bestsellers. Unless you know about sources where you can read more about contemporary international literature, like the website Publishing Perspectives for instance, your literary horizon is a little restricted. For instance, if you want to get a glimpse into Russian literature, pick up a Tolstoy novel or one of Pushkin’s long poems and you will find part of what you’re looking for, but when it comes to more contemporary works, it’s harder to get a hold of them. Efforts are made to remediate this issue. Certain publishing companies like Pushkin Press are devoted to publishing works from all over the world. Moreover, I’ve recently noticed a wish to read more diversely on social platforms like Goodreads or Youtube.
A project that really interested me is one that the writer Ann Morgan pursued a few years ago. In the span of one year, she decided to read a book from every independent country in the world (196). You can read more about her project on her blog: http://ayearofreadingtheworld.com. What I found interesting was her explaining the struggles she faced with gaining access to books from certain countries, and even sometimes finding a single work to read. She talked about the fact that some countries literary history resides in an oral tradition rather than in written works. Therefore, in our society, these works are not always perceived as literature and difficult to access for someone who is not part of the community.
During my BA, I really wanted to get a wide knowledge of literature. Among all the courses that were offered, I tried to take the most diverse ones in terms of geography. I ended up studying American, Canadian, Quebec, French, Caribbean, and Russian literature. Of course, this list is missing some important places. I did not get the chance to take any course on African or Asian literature, but through my Anthropology courses, I was able to take a look at these literatures as well, although it was very superficial. Now that I’ve faced my fear of translated works, I think I can start diving into some more foreign literature.
If you look at my reading plans for this year, there’s still not much diversity. I think next year will be the year for me to widen my literary horizon a little more, not only geographically but also in terms of time period (I’m going to have to drift away from my beloved 19th century if I can). I believe that literature is a great way to travel and open one’s mind. In my opinion, reading diversely is crucial to gain tolerance and to feel more connected with the rest of the world.
If you have any suggestions of foreign books with good translations, I’ll be happy to get any recommendations.