Lack of World Literature in English: the Example of Asia

Cui Tiankai in 2011
Last week saw the start, and end, of the BookExpo America in New York. This year China was in the spotlight, sending the largest ever international delegation to the popular annual book fair. At the opening ceremony Cui Tiankai, the Chinese Ambassador to the United States, said the following:

'You never open a book, without learning something.' (Xinhuanet)
Literature can provide a doorway into culture, allowing people to tell their stories through their own traditional and preferred mediums. Story-telling is what societies throughout history have used to preserve their traditions and culture, whether they were literate or not, and is occasionally even what survives a culture's disappearance. In an age as (economically) globalized as ours, surely an exchange of literature should be a natural occurrence. Your market is no longer your own town, your own region or even your own country but could realistically span the world.

It is a shame to see, then, that in the last few days a number of articles have appeared criticizing the decided lack of world literature in English. Marina Warner even said the British are 'oddly provincial in outlook' when it comes to literature (Guardian). Warner was especially referring to the fact that English has become the world language, leading to the seeming blindness to the literature written in other major languages. In 2012 Literature Across Frontiers established that indeed only around 3% of the published output in the UK and US is translated, with 'the top ten translated European languages [being] French, German, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Portuguese and Danish' and 'top five non-European languages [being] Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew and Persian' (Publishing Translated Literature).

In some ways this could be related to the popularity, and therefore marketability, of the novel-form. The novel at it most well-known was a largely European product. Although at times Lady Murasaki's The Tale of Genji, written in early 11th century Japan, is interestingly considered the first novel, the trend is generally accepted to have started in Europe with Miguel de Cervantes' Don Quixote in 1605. Since then, it has grown in popularity and is now one of the largest story-telling mediums. It has become a way for people to express their own and their country's spirit all over the world.

Oi Kok Hin, in his article for The Malaysian Insider, stated his sadness over not being able to hold a conversation about his own country's literary tradition, wondering who would remember it if not Malaysians themselves. As stated previously, literature is an expression, and celebration, of culture and reading it therefore inevitably also leads to a better understanding of culture. Remembering one's history goes hand in hand with remembering one's literature. Aside from this, it feels very natural to get to know a country's history, language and feel from the people who live there whether it's through a woman writing about how the women in her family fared through China's rapid cultural changes in the 20th century or an on the road type of novel which explores modern China.

Why, then is there such an imbalance in how literature is exchanged between the traditional "West" (Northern Europe and America, in this case) and everywhere else, if it is not down to form?

Zhao Lihong, Chinese poet and literary critic, recently picked up on the imbalance in literature exchange between the West and China, saying that:
'[o]ver the past 100 years, China has introduced the Western literature to the country and translated thousands of Western writers' works, including American writers' works ... However, the Western world has introduced limited amount of literature of China, especially the Chinese contemporary literature works.' (Global Times)
According to the 2014 Global Ranking of the Publishing Industry, China 'accounts for some 12 percent of the global book publishing industry'. The Global Ranking has made a special effort this year to include publishing companies from outside the mainstream. As the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are developing economically, their ability to spend their money on things such as books is also developing. The mass translation of classic English literature into these languages is well-documented but in return we only find the occasional book coming through. Surely it would make sense financially to strengthen this relationship by making it go both ways. There seems to be no reason not to do so.

I personally believe this under-representation of foreign literature is one which comes down to the same issue from which the #WeNeedDiverseBooks sprang. Similarly to the big and small screen, the general fiction that is currently available en masse seems to be stuck on telling the same story over and over again, with small and insignificant changes made along the way. I'm not saying nothing can be gained from these books, but their popularity denies the need for a more diverse approach to publishing stories.

Rather than demand that the same authors change their own way of expressing themselves in order to become more diverse, we should be looking at the diverse literature already available to us in order to avoid diversity becoming token or a trope. Misrepresentation can be as dangerous as under-representation. By continuing to raise this issue, both for translation and diversity, the demand for it will become clearer and the publishing industry will have to make room for it. Genres transcends language boundaries and readers who transcend borders can hold the world in their hand.

An interesting place to look for international literature is Three Percent - a resource for international literature at the University of Rochester. For contemporary Chinese novels, hop over to The Culture Trip.


  1. I totally agree with this. We really need more foreign books translated into English, and they need to be GOOD translations. I’ve read a few terrible translations in the past few years. Getting a whole book translated is extremely expensive, though, so that’s probably why there aren’t more of them. Publishers can’t afford it.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!


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