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from the April 2021 issue

The Thrill of Reading Obliviously

I discovered The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank in the library of the dead wife of my mother’s then-partner. At eight, I was three years fatherless and about a year into a bewildering blended family situation. Over several readings, Anne’s confessions provided much-needed escape and empathy. I never considered that Anne was writing to Kitty in Dutch, which makes The Diary my first translated book. It never occurred to me even though I grew up with multiple languages in Malaysia. It could be that it seemed then that “real” books only came in English, but I dove into Anne’s world unbothered by such questions. It was like nothing I’d ever read. I also had nothing to compare it to.

As someone who has since written about books and curated the programs of a US literary festival, I understand comparison offers a contextual shorthand for selling books and luring readers, both causes close to my heart. In the realm of translated literature, however, the idea is largely one-directional in the service of Anglophone readers, a construct of colonialism, perhaps an inevitable result of the prevailing empire. We might have, for example, the “Jonathan Franzen of Argentina,” but who might be the “Mariana Enríquez of Florida letters”? Translators I polled (unscientifically) said they hadn’t come across such evaluations—no “British Murakami”-type mentions—in the literary discourses of the languages they worked in. English books are not “translated literature,” but just books by American or British authors.

Anglophone readers, however, appear to require familiar persuasion. “When we describe someone as ‘the German x,’ 'the Italian y,’ often it's because our exposure in the US is generally restricted to, well, US-born writers,” says Aaron Robertson, translator from the Italian of Igiaba Scego’s Beyond Babylon, which dazzled me with its global tangents and linguistic wanderings. Only once I finished it did I read the introduction by Jhumpa Lahiri, in which she draws a connective thread between the novel and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Danzy Senna’s Caucasia, and Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia. In this case, the presumptions that the reader would be familiar with the compared-to titles (a more global mix), and would enjoy Beyond Babylon just as much, worked out. In another case, a Latin American author I recently wrote about was likened in marketing to Shirley Jackson, an American writer whom I haven’t gotten to yet but probably should ASAP. The endorsements were not essential for me to crack either book open.

Known English titles lead others to translated titles. “Selling Americans translated lit is like selling them films with subtitles,” says Bulgarian-to-English translator Izidora Angel. “It’s too ‘hard’ to explain.” The nature of publishing’s gatekeeping, the demands of marketing, and, as Angel puts it, the “cultural priorities of those who hold the money” have everything to do with which English translations even get the chance to be compared to something. A translated work’s pitch is aided by comparisons. “I can imagine whom I would pick as the Martin Amis of China—it’s not a completely meaningless description for anyone who has read Martin Amis—but I have to wonder whether insisting on these categories might mean, first of all, reinforcing an existing canon and, relatedly, overlooking writers who can’t be similarly pigeonholed,” says Natascha Bruce, translator of Chinese-language writers such as Hong Kong’s Dorothy Tse. “Translating books isn’t just about getting new books to readers. It’s about deconstructing what empire has decided is canon, undoing that whole tradition of how we respond to and assess literature and–building on that–of how we understand the world.”

Through Bruce’s work, I read my first translated Malaysian title, Lake Like a Mirror by Ho Sok Fong, who writes in Chinese. Ho’s stories, deeply interior and unabashedly local to the point that Bruce had to render a mix of languages, in addition to the overall translation, dislodged my own perceptions. Perhaps it was the effect of her pointed yet also floating language, but I felt released from the need to liken her work to books in the Malaysian English canon, or the contemporary Malay novels published by Buku Fixi. Although familiar with the general setting, I met Ho’s stories on their terms, and admired her matter-of-fact unveiling of what are considered “sensitive” areas—race, sexuality, etc.—in the country. I submerged myself in what I think all reading is about: the undeniability of stories, and that feeling that it is all real, and not fiction at all.

A label (Malaysia’s Flannery O’Connor? Jean Rhys? Virginia Woolf? But which books?!) might coax some, especially those unfamiliar with Malaysia’s multi-everything surrealism or Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora literature. If it does, great; the given book (and all translated ones) will get read. I would never argue against literary gateway drugs. For me, the blurbs on a book’s cover are less interesting than the words contained within, especially those woven together in their original languages and re-created by translators in English. Discovery without outside preamble is a thrill as pure as it was for my eight-year-old self reading Anne Frank, unaware that a language called Dutch existed. 

© 2021 by J. R. Ramakrishnan. All rights reserved.

Read More from Our Opinion Series on Comparable Titles
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