Feeding and assessing a foreign literature addiction

I’ve written several times about my increasing interest in addiction to literature in translation. More than a third of the fiction I read last year consisted of works in translation. Last week certainly contributed to it continuing.

Let me first note that I’m charter subscriber to Open Letter Books, so I automatically get 10 works in translation a year. I’ve only bought two books this year — both of them literature in translation. I read both — The Maimed and Brodeck (which I loved) — within days of purchase.

On Friday Conversational Reading mentioned an offer that proved irresistible. Archipelago Books has two of the ten finalists for this year’s Best Translated Book Award. In honor of that, it is offering both shortlisted books free with a 10-book subscription.

My PayPal payment was in within five minutes of reading of the deal. I urge you to consider the offer, too. Take a chance on perhaps reading outside your comfort zone and what you know.

By coincidence, I learned of the Archipelago offer just days after reading an essay by Hilary Plum at The Quarterly Conversation on “how we read languages we don’t read.” Plum, who works for a publisher of international lit, has some interesting questions and observations about reading literature in translation, particularly an approach I often take. She asks why we tend to approach foreign literature as some sort of “ambassador from another land, here to provide local color and help us find common ground”. That, she contends, leads us to emphasize or focus on that with which we are comfortable or familiar.

…the foreignness of foreign literature is an irreplaceable value… So perhaps we as readers … should be looking for ways to encounter “foreignness.” In other words, perhaps it’s better to think of literature in translation first as stories we can’t make our own, as truths we can’t vouch for. Otherwise we risk reading only what we already know how to read, privileging our personal taste and experience over everything the text offers—a text that, no matter where it was written and by whom, was never meant to reflect only ourselves, our readings. Otherwise we risk seeking out experiences in literature only as tourists who stay on the bus, see just the well-known sites.

I have no doubt I tend to read foreign literature with that eye toward being a tourist interested in an easy border crossing. I’d like to think I do get off the tour bus with some frequency but perhaps Plum’s essay will prompt me to do so more often.

Finally, while I’m on the topic, Words Without Borders spreads word of And Other Stories, “a fledgling independent publisher of fiction in translation with a new, community-based approach.” It evidently plans to use a couple forums at LibraryThing as a part of the process of picking its first books for publication in the Spring of 2011.

The love of books is a love which requires neither justification, apology, nor defence.

JOhn A/ Langford, The Praise of Books

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