I recently read an interview with John O'Brien, founder of the Dalkey Archive Press, a nonprofit press that puts special attention on publishing translations. There are a lot of interesting questions raised and answers given here with regard to the issue, to put it crudely, of Americans not giving much of a crap about reading literature in translation. O'Brien talks about the necessity of supporting international literature in a nonprofit context, as there isn't much of a market for it.
I certainly support what the Dalkey Archive Press is doing, intend to purchase some of their books in the near future, and hope that by some miracle I will be able to make a large donation to them at some point. However, the interview caused me to start thinking about the whole American translation issue in a bigger picture kind of way, and I would like to talk about that.
Americans can be smug, dumb jocks. However, most of us don't strictly adhere to this stereotype. I think a lot of what comes out as American stupidity is more a kind of constant low-grade panic, a discomfort and self-consciousness resulting from constantly trying to fit in a culture that looks sloppy and uber-casual from an outsider's point of view but has many subtle social rules built into it, the adherence to which still results in no guarantee of acceptance or belonging. If someone tells us we're dumb and uncultured, we'll laugh loud and proceed to act as dumb and uncultured as we possibly can. We'll deprive ourselves of something we want for a lifetime just to make a point. We've been both babied into thinking that there's no need for us to delve into anything that makes us uncomfortable and made scared in our isolation, afraid to reach out for fear we won't be able to get back to wherever we were before.
So while it's possible to look at our lack of interest in international literature from a socioeconomic perspective and one of pure cultural snobbery, I suspect we might mostly be afraid and intimidated by what we're up against when we look at how literature is handled in France and Germany, for instance. We want to feel equal to the UK and Europe and due to our history we feel measured against them as we never will against countries like Korea, Japan or China, countries that we see as being more foreign even though in a lot of ways they're more like us, sharing our "passion" for ambition-related masochism and convenience products marketed for survival in a dog-eat-dog (don't even) world. We're distrustful of British intellectualism and European artiness, to sum up. [/cruel but fun, probably at least marginally true speculations]
I originally had this post titled "How Americans are Big Babies About Translation..." which might imply a bit more hostility than I meant or than is deserved. The above may be true, but we also don't have a whole lot of choice in the matter, and often may not be aware of what options are available to us. But there are small presses and nonprofits out there making more options available. One of them is Deep Vellum Publishing, a nonprofit that is not only specializing in translated literature, but is based in Dallas (or more to the point, not in NYC). The more that we support ventures like this, the more this kind of thing will be able to become the norm, not just saving but transforming the publishing industry.
There didn't used to be much of a market in the U.S. for international cuisine, either. We can learn.