Recently, I read the article ‘Lost in Translation: On fostering a conversation between languages’ by Kylie Maslen. Being from Australia, a monolingual and quite isolated country, it covered a topic I had never really been faced with – the decision on whether to write, publish or speak in a particular language. Reading this article, I was surprised that something seemingly so obvious had not been on my radar, and I really enjoyed the thought process that the article then invoked in me.
Maslen takes the city of Berlin as her example, where German is the ‘mother tongue’, and many people speak more than one language, with 86% of Germans speaking English (the author lists Turkish, Russian and Polish as the highest non-German speaking languages also, where English acts as a ‘bridge’ for communication). In a city like this, reading is not as simple as grabbing any available book from a store or library. Which language would you like to, or be able to, read it in? Where is that available? And if you are to write something, which language do you choose to publish in? Do you remain true to your cultural heritage, or do you perhaps broaden your audience by choosing another language?
While many English language books are translated into other languages, it seems the reverse isn’t as true. Far less books written in German, French, Spanish, Mandarin and so on are translated into English and widely read in places such as Australia (the Man Booker Prize states that “only 3% of the titles published each year in the UK and America are translations from a foreign tongue”). This makes me think that I am missing out on some spectacular reading because of my inability to understand any other language than English! This is quite a depressing realisation, that such beauty and knowledge from other cultures contained in these works cannot be imparted more broadly, and that those writers are not getting fair representation. As a person who loves to travel and learn about other cultures, I do not wish to close off so many channels of communication. When a foreign film interests me, it is easy enough to find English subtitles. However, there seems to be no quick and easy translation service for literature.
One initiative Maslen discusses is Readux – “a small press working to translate work by contemporary German authors into English” in an attempt to bring some more equality to available literature and its influence on writers. Having read mostly books written in English, I am not sure however how much of a particular novel may be ‘lost in translation’, in that nuances in language and culture may not be so easy to transfer. In any case, hopefully more publishers like Readux can boost the conversation of literature across cultures. And I now feel even more inspired to download the Duolingo app and try to broaden my own horizons outside of my restrictive English-only world.
- Are you multilingual? If so, do you have a preferred language for reading in?
- Do you feel you have enough opportunity to read books translated from languages foreign to you?
– Michelle De Aizpurua, ILN Content Officer.