In praise of translated works

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I’ve been thinking about translated books a lot lately. There’s a few reasons for this. First, and foremost, is because the book I’ve most anxiously awaited this year is The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu. It’s currently sitting at the top of my to-read pile. I will write about it more in detail after I’ve, you know, read it.

The second reason is as part of the ongoing discussion of privilege within the genre community. Our understanding of what is normative is so closely tied to that issue, and comes across in the media we consume.

And, finally, I just really happen to like a lot of translated literature and, as part of my own personal process of fannishness I think about this stuff.

Cultural exchange and normativeness

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege this year. I mean, if you’re a decent person and you haven’t been living in a cave it’s kind of hard not to. There’s been a massive cultural transformation going on in various media sectors for the last few years. As any major shift in culture it has led to some substantial tensions which have largely flared up in circumstances like the WFA trophy controversy and Gamergate.

Of course, there’s also been the controversy surrounding Jian Ghomeshi, who surrendered to police and was charged with five counts as part of a serious collection of sex assault accusations. And there have been several situations in the United States, the latest and one of the most egregious being the refusal of a grand jury to bring Darren Wilson to trial for shooting an unarmed teenager twelve times, killing the boy basically just because he had dark skin.

If you’re a white middle-class male in a wealthy country you probably should be examining your own privilege.

Now I like to think that my parents raised me right. I’ve always been open and accepting of people in all their diversity. But here’s the thing, and it’s something I’ve really tried to confront in my own life lately, privilege goes beyond whether or not you act like a bigot. Because you can control that. I can choose not to be an asshole. But I can’t choose not to be a white man. And being a white man gives me the opportunity to be seen as normal.

It’s the assumption that boys won’t engage female protagonists but girls will engage males.

It’s the assumption that your video game avatar is going to be a tough-looking white dude with blue eyes and short brown hair. Even if you can change your avatar to look more like yourself, they will not be standard, they won’t be the face on the box.

It’s the ability to walk through a crowd without being shouted at, to be invisible and ignored if you want to be.

It’s the ability to not be judged for how you dress, for what you eat, for how you sound.

It’s the assumption that your opinion will be listened to.

And I can’t turn any of that stuff off. It’s not stuff I control. At least not directly. This stuff is culturally coded.

Now in sociology there’s a core concept called “material culture” – simply put, material culture is the parts of culture we can see, touch, interact with. It’s our food, our toys, our books, our music. And to certain schools of sociology almost all of our culture is coded in material culture.

But of course, cultures don’t exist in a vacuum – despite our compartmentalized mythology, masquerading as history, they never have (though that’s a rant for another day).

Cultures interface with each other all the time. They export bits of themselves. They import things from other cultures. Thinkers from one place talk to thinkers in another place. Early Buddhists in India and Nepal traveled to China, met Taoists, formed ch’an. More controversially they probably encountered Hebrew culture (either via the Persians or in the aftermath of the Macedonian conquest) and may very well have helped influence the development of Christianity (records for that are much spottier, we know the Buddhists got as far as Afghanistan, and were influential enough there to build monumental structures, and the roads through Afghanistan eventually made their way back to the Mediterranean, and there are a lot of similarities in doctrine and dressing between early Christianity and Buddhism, but a lot of that is circumstantial at best).

But the English speaking world has, for the last three centuries or so, been AWFUL about resisting the import of culture. This grew out of imperial attitudes of both the British Empire and American manifest destiny. It led to the creation of things such as “illegal immigration,” which didn’t really exist as a concept until the 1800s. On a more recent front it has made native English speakers much more likely to be monolingual than native speakers of other languages. And we don’t consume media from other cultures very often either.

Horace Engdahl famously despaired that Americans ” don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature” he called this ignorance and said it was restraining.

Now, to be entirely fair, I don’t agree with even half of what Engdahl says. He enjoys courting controversy and frequently posits opinions that are difficult to say the least. But, on this, I think he’s right. And it’s not just the Americans. It’s English Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand too.

We don’t read translations. We buy books from American and British publishing houses, written in English, by native English speakers. Mostly white. Mostly men. And this reinforces our view of the world – that white, English speaking, men are the default.

We buy fantasy stories and every one is set in a thinly veiled England. Hell, Westeros even LOOKS like England. We buy science fiction stories and they’re populated entirely by space Americans. Think about that for a second, our fiction of the fantastic is bound into our cultural context to the point where the best other cultures can often hope to have within them is a position of respected Other. Never the hero. Never the focus.

The arrow of causation on this doesn’t point just one direction. We consume media that reinforces our ideas of normativeness, and those in turn strengthen the subconscious idea we have that this is normal.

So how can we begin to break this cycle?

Learn about somebody else’s normal.

Now it’s not a perfect process. The market for translated literature is small and the selection is limited. Generally you’ll only find works if they:

  1. have a large fanbase to either provide a financial incentive for translation or to do the grunt-work of translation for free
  2. have a significance to canon (IE: were highly influential to later works or won international awards).
  3. are from cultures with either current or historical global power.

As a result you’re much more likely to find books translated from Latin, Greek, German, French and Chinese than from !Kung or Hungarian. You’re also much more likely to find OLD literature than new.


Soul Mountain

Seriously, go read Soul Mountain, right now if you haven’t yet. It’s just brilliant.

Hell, I seek out translated work, and I’ve probably read a dozen Plato, Aurileus or Confucius age works and half a dozen of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche’s vintage for every one Gao Xingjian. And partially that’s down to availability. It’s just not that often you run across something published in the last 30 years translated into English.

But translated books give you a valuable gift. They give you a chance to experience somebody else’s expectations of what constitutes normal, without having to take the time and effort to become literate in other languages to the point you can manage their literature. It gives you a chance also to see what other cultures consider fantastical.

And this gives us a paradoxical understanding both of the beautiful diversity of the world and its fundamental humanity.

It’s NOT a magic bullet

Fixing the privilege problem, if it can happen at all, isn’t going to happen overnight, and it isn’t going to happen just by watching fansubs of anime and reading the Witcher books while listening to Mongolian throat singing. Consuming culture is not the same as engaging it.

But it teaches a valuable skill. If we immerse ourselves in worlds from outside our privileged bubble we can learn a bit about the experiences of the people we’ve spent the last three centuries othering.

We can read to prime ourselves to listen. And if we learn to start sincerely listening to diverse voices, not just in our media but in our daily lives, maybe we can eventually make some progress toward a more equitable world.

At least I hope so. Because I don’t want my daughter to have to grow up in the one we’ve got right now.