I used to boast about the number of books I owned. ‘Thousands!’ I’d tell people. ‘Doubled up on bookshelves, piled up around the house and stored in crates in my parents’ loft.’
Then, shortly before my thirtieth birthday, a chance comment about international literature made me change my tune. Scanning the titles crammed on the wall-to-wall bookcase in my living room, I made a startling discovery: almost every book I owned had been written in English.
It’s a similar story for many anglophone readers. As literary translations account for only around four and a half per cent of the titles published in the UK and Ireland each year, the pool of international works available to us is relatively small. What’s more, with sales figures for international stories rarely hitting the big time (Scandi-noir blockbusters excepted), it’s clear that most of the titles bought in this country come from the English-speaking world. Although book lovers here may read copiously, most of us don’t read widely.
The same is not true for bibliophiles in other parts of the planet. Indeed, with translations accounting for as much as seventy per cent of publications in countries such as Slovenia, it’s almost impossible for readers of languages other than English to avoid encountering foreign literature.
Many of the world’s greatest writers have described the importance of such cross-cultural exchange for the development of their craft. In the first volume of his autobiography, Living to Tell the Tale, for example, the Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez cites a diverse range of influences. ‘I went [home] with the air of someone who had discovered the world,’ he writes of his first encounter with Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. Meanwhile, Japanese luminary Haruki Murakami has spoken and written about the way books by Chandler, Kafka and Dostoevsky have shaped his work.
Indeed, numerous internationally renowned authors have gone beyond simply consuming literature from other linguistic traditions to get involved in the translation process itself. One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century, Argentine polymath Jorge Luis Borges, is said to have translated Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince at the age of nine and went on to convert many English, French, German, Old English and Old Norse works into his native Spanish over the course of his career.
Working and thinking in other languages brought richness and multivalency to these writers’ works. As the books they translated shifted between languages, acquiring new resonances and shedding implications specific to their home cultures, these authors honed their appreciation of the weight of words and calibrated their instinct for language. In threading nuance through sentences constructed along different grammatical lines – and experiencing the alteration in emphasis that often comes with thinking in another language – Borges and his ilk strengthened their practice.
So ought we anglophone wordsmiths to take a leaf out of their books? Might we have something to gain from venturing beyond the familiar shallows of stories produced in English into the vast, churning waters of literature from elsewhere?
These were some of the questions I was keen to answer when, in 2012, in an effort to correct the massive cultural blind spot my bookshelves revealed, I set out to read a book from every country in the world. Giving myself twelve months to work through a publication from each of the one-hundred and ninety-five UN-recognised states (plus a couple of extras) and record my adventures on ayearofreadingtheworld.com, I was curious to see what impact reading stories written in societies rather different to my own might have on my thinking and creativity.
The effect turned out to be life-changing. Bombarded by startling imagery and accounts of unfamiliar events and rituals, my imagination underwent a kind of year-long literary boot camp. As I read about whales sleeping on top of houses in Pacific island folk tales, children smoking pipes in Mongolia and polygamous marriages in literature from nations like Nigeria and Senegal, I was confronted with a host of plotting and descriptive possibilities that would never otherwise have entered my head.
In addition, I met characters who expanded my idea of how human beings can be presented on the page. From the foul-mouthed and irreverent transgender temple medium, Daisy, in Nu Nu Yi’s Smile as They Bow (the first Burmese novel to be translated and published in English by a major publisher) to the towering title character of Mozambican classic novel, Ualalapi, who works his own destruction in his attempt to defeat the Portuguese colonialists, I found my mental landscape thronged with a range of literary creations who challenged my assumptions about what stories can and should be.
Such encounters were not always comfortable. For instance, when reading Mata Sara by Regis Tove Stella from Papua New Guinea, one of the more than seventy countries where same-sex relationships are illegal, I struggled to maintain sympathy with characters whose worldview rested on beliefs with which I profoundly disagreed. Similarly, I found it difficult to get on with some South American crime fiction, which seemed far less neatly plotted than I was used to. It wasn’t until fellow literary adventurers pointed out that the untidy way these novels are sometimes resolved often reflects the history of corruption and consequent distrust of the authorities in their authors’ home countries that I realised the problem was with my reading and not with the books themselves.
These experiences shed light on my prejudices and illuminated the fault lines in many of the stories about the world I took for granted. As my reading journey progressed, I found myself much more alive to complexity, difference and ambiguity. With this enlargement of thinking, my ability to write grew too. Suddenly the novels I had been struggling for years to construct seemed rather small and narrow. It was as though I had been scrabbling around building castles in a sand pit, oblivious to the vast expanse of desert beyond the boundaries of my little patch.
Although tough to digest at times, this richer and more varied literary diet fed my creativity and fired my imagination. The constraints fell away and I grew more fearless in terms of the subject matter and techniques with which I was willing to engage. As translator Mireille Gansel argues in her beautiful memoir-cum-treatise Translation as Transhumance, browsing the literatures of other linguistic traditions was as nourishing and necessary as moving sheep to fresh pasture. At last I could see what passionate internationalist and polyglot Goethe meant by his warning that literature that refuses to be refreshed by writing from other languages will eventually exhaust its vitality.
My own work bore witness to this. After a decade of trying – and failing – to write a publishable piece of long-form fiction, in March 2013, just over a year after I had set out to read the world, I finally sat down and drafted what would become my first novel. Spurred on by the daring and ingenuity of very many storytellers who are almost unknown in the English-speaking world, I no longer felt obliged to stay within the confines of the familiar and the safe. At last, I was able to take the risks necessary to put something worthwhile on the page.
Five years on from the original quest, with another novel draft under my belt and hundreds of translated reads on my bookshelves, I am more convinced than ever of the benefits of reading internationally. The exceptional stories and characters I continue to encounter in narratives written in languages other than English challenge me to go further and be bolder in my work. I know now that I’ll be reading the world for the rest of my life – and, with my first novel published in eight languages, I hope the world (or parts of it, at least) will be reading me too.
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