The Insularity of English

“At a time when everyone is asking why English-language fiction has stalled, why fewer readers buy novels, part of the answer must lie in the decline of translation. Alert readers of Spanish, French, German, Italian and Portuguese, among other languages, participate in an international aesthetic conversation; readers and writers of English, condemned to silence by insular fantasies of global artistic relevance, are missing out on the next wave of literature.” – Stephen Henighan, The Insularity of English

5 thoughts on “The Insularity of English

  1. Sadly true. You have to search very hard to find contemporary fiction from other languages, bar a few famous names… sometimes it’s there, but it takes some digging. It’s kind of shameful and very frustrating when you wander around FNAC to see how many writers (or how much of the corpus of writers) are there in translation in French, when you just can’t get them in English. Or how often people like Ismael Kadare, who writes in Albanian, is translated from French rather than Albanian, presumably because there aren’t the translators…

  2. Jana says:

    What I found particularly interesting was the notion that this is why English-language fiction has stalled. I wonder if it’s true.

    I’ve been reading Kundera’s writings on the art of the novel, in which he claims that it’s not so much that the possibilities of the novel have been exhausted, but rather missed. He has a great affection for the playful novel, in the tradition of Sterne, Diderot, Cervantes, and believes that line of thought got completely forgotten. I wouldn’t know; but I hugely enjoy Kundera’s work.

    The article above does shame the hell out of me. I don’t know so many of the quoted names..!

  3. What’s shameful is I know most of the earlier names – Schulz, Klima, Tanizaki &c – and none of the contemporary ones. Though I think I once met Roberto Bolazo. If these writers are not translated, how can a monolinguist like me find them? And if they really are doing amazing things, then we are missing out. There are writers from the mid-20th century who are still trickling into English or if translated still very little known – Daniel is reading the Russian writer Victor Serge and keeps telling me he’s never read anything like it (my turn next), and I’m presently reading Robert Pinget, who is a contemporary of Beckett, and whom Beckett admired. And you can sure see why.

    Generalising wildly, I do think the bulk of literary fiction in English is pretty dull and conventional, with little formal curiosity. There are of course exceptions, including our own Richard Flanagan. But the most exciting and inspiring literary novelists I’ve read in the past few years are almost without exception translated. I think there probably is a connection.

  4. Jana says:

    I believe there is a special-character typo there, and the name is Roberto Bolaño; quite a few of his books have been translated since 2666 became a hit. I haven’t read a single one, mainly because 2666, which I’ve been recommended by everyone around me, is a huge novel.

    I’m glad you’ve said this, and not I. My favourite recent novel(ist)s are all in languages other than English: Amelie Nothomb, Alessandro Baricco, Jose Saramago, Milan Kundera. The closest may be the Quebecois Gaétan Soucy, whose The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches was written in French (it’s an extraordinary novel, if you haven’t read it).

    Recently I treated myself to Vogue Italia, and it’s disheartening to be reminded that this haute glossy, in its book pages, features a long article on the new Dutch novel. Just like that, between the ads and the arts pages. To expect the same light-handed cosmopolitanism in Australia would amount to champagne-sipping elitism, apparently.

  5. Mind you, it’s hard to keep up with those who are translated…I’m still catching up on the 20th century!

    Have you encountered Michele Desbordes? She’s probably the most extraordinary writer I’ve read in the past few years; or at least, she speaks to me in a very deep way. I think you’d like her a lot. She died quite recently (! so sad – I would have loved to keep reading her, it was like she was just beginning, all her books were published only in the last decade) and I think only a little of her work is translated – so far as I know, only The Maid’s Request and The House in the Forest.

    Also Arto Paasilinna, the Finnish writer – he wrote a book called The Howling Miller that is fantastic, very funny, very black, and I’m eyeing another one called The Year of the Hare. Another recent discovery is Per Petterson, Norwegian, whom I like a real lot.

    I guess we could keep piling up books here…

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