This is a guest post from Tara Cheesman-Olmsted. Tara’s bookshelves are filled with translations, international fiction and books about epidemics. Her e-reader is filled with romance novels. She reviews some of those books for online magazines. When not reading or writing, Tara spends her time obsessively collecting wooden pencils, exploring cities in search of new book stores, and attending the occasional art exhibit. She was a panelist at the 2015 PEN World Voices Festival in New York City and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Since 2009 she’s written the blogBookSexy Review. Follow her on Twitter @booksexyreview.
Reading is reading and traveling is traveling, and to think that the former can replicate the same experience as the latter is just silly. And still, I’ve heard that given as a reason for reading books in translation. Books alone can’t give you the experience of visiting another country. The identity of a place is a unique combination of sights, smells, and sounds descending upon you in a single moment in time. The light, the landscape and architecture, the movement of the air and the sounds and smells that travel on it – these things are wholly unique to a geographic point in time and space. Nabokov, in his memoir Speak, Memory tells an anecdote about the way a friend of his described poetry which I think perfectly describes visiting a new place.
…all poetry is positional: to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge… Vivian Bloodmark, a philosophical friend of mine, in later years, used to say that while the scientist sees everything that happens in one point of space, the poet feels everything that happens in one point in time. Lost in thought, he taps his knee with his wandlike pencil, and at the same instant a car (New York license plate) passes along the road, a child bangs the screen door of a neighboring porch, an old man yawns in a misty Turkestan orchard, a granule of cinder-gray sand is rolled by the wind on Venus, a Docteur Jacques Hirsch in Grenoble puts on his reading glasses, and trillions of other such trifles occur – all forming an instantaneous and transparent organism of events, of which the poet (sitting in a lawn chair, at Ithaca, N.Y.) is the nucleus.
Poetry might be able to capture all that in a few lines, but novelists are usually interested in other things.
Why, then, should you read translations? Mostly because they are good books, with good stories in them, which just happen to be written by someone whose life experience is different from yours. The last reason is probably the most important – the opportunity to observe another culture through an insider’s eyes. A translation can be a chance to immerse yourself within another society’s value system. You can learn how other people live their lives in a way that let’s you share their experiences without necessarily having to make positive or negative comparisons to your own. You can read without judging.
There’s also the matter of language and personal taste. A good translator can translate a book into English and still keep some of the idiosyncrasies of the author’s native language and style of storytelling. I enjoy the quiet prose of Japanese writers like Minae Mizumura and Yukio Mishima even when the subject matter of the story is frightening or strange, whereas I have a harder time with books from China. The few I’ve read have all been told from a narrow, first person perspective that focused on the negatives of the characters’ day-to-day lives and which I found frustrating (sometimes infuriating). But I’ve had friends tell me Chinese writers like Nobel Prize winner Mo Yan can be absolutely hilarious – which just goes to show the depth and variety of translations out there even in one specific language. If you want to play it safe, you can’t miss with the crop of contemporary Latin American writers that have been translated and published in the last decade. Cesar Aira, Juan Pablo Villalobos, and Andres Neuman write entertaining, playful books that are just fun to read.
No, I don’t believe reading translations can perform the same function as traveling to another country, despite all they can teach you about one. But a strange thing did happen to me the first time I visited Paris. I hadn’t really prepped for the trip. I didn’t look at travel books or maps ahead of time. I had been reading French writers like Houellebecq, Perec and Laurence Cosse. I’d even read Nancy Mitford’s The Sun King, a silly, supposedly non-fiction book about King Louis XIV and Versaille. And, though I’d never been there before, everything seemed vaguely familiar. The light, the air and the architecture – even the sounds – the city was exactly as I’d pictured it while reading those books.