Thursday, February 18, 2010

Field Guides to Elsewhere: How We Read Languages We Don’t Read


this essay by Hilary Plum is in part a response to the recent essay in The New Yorker by Claudia Roth Pierpont about the Arabic novel--a piece of some interest, but not nearly as interesting as it could have been. Plum articulates why, at least in part--it's the literary equivalent of a travel guide. Though I am not an expert in the field of Arabic literature, I have read almost all the books she mentions, and she doesn't really add anything that Edward Said said ten years ago (except for the emergence of the new Arabic Booker phenomenon).

Check out Plum's fab quote about translation: "Literature in translation is a crossing of borders, but shouldn’t be thought of just as one of the easier border crossings—tourism, reportage, whatever sort of casual interest or genealogical research—but remembering the violent invasions and migrations that make up our real world and thus the theoretical field of translation. It’s useful to think of reading literature in translation not as a means of gathering “insight and information,” but as a means of experiencing acts of resistance that occur between languages, between cultures, “simply” between reader and writer."

Full text below:


Field Guides to Elsewhere: How We Read Languages We Don’t Read
Essay by Hilary Plum — Published on February 16, 2010

“There are, of course, newspapers to keep responsible Americans up to date when trouble looms, and public television or even the History Channel to inform us about the occasional historic battle or archaeological discovery or civil war. What else do we need?” Claudia Roth Pierpont frames her essay on the contemporary Arabic novel, published in the January 18, 2010, New Yorker, with this question, then presents a handful of novels to discuss, stating, “There is clearly insight as well as information in these books,” and that “what follows is an account of some novels that are worth reading now, and that may prove to be worth reading even when newspapers divert our attention to wars and prisons somewhere else.”

Who is the “we,” the American reader, Pierpont has in mind? Someone “responsible” enough to want to learn more about the cultures in which their nation’s foreign policy has involved them; someone who reads newspapers for this information, but recognizes that there are kinds of information newspapers can’t offer, but perhaps literature can—information, in Pierpont’s words, about “[t]he ways that people think and work and suffer and fall in love and make enemies and sometimes make revolutions.” These readers know they have a need for news from elsewhere and know this need can be answered, through convenient, commodified forms (the newspaper, the novel). When they need information from a new location—Haiti? Afghanistan? Iran?—it is assumed that will also be available to them. The urgency of this need is described as the urgency of an intellectual or possibly civic responsibility, but nothing more personal; these are not wars or prisons that claim our own loved ones, these are not our revolutions, although these may be our enemies.

The New Yorker essay, then, starts off somewhat curiously as not about Arabic literature per se, but about how American readers can answer their need for Arabic literature. Pierpont recognizes that the novel is not the primary literary form in Arabic, that poetry “has traditionally held wider prestige”; novels are a European form that has developed in Arabic primarily in the second half of the last century. But novels, not poetry, are what American readers like to read. “Is it possible,” Pierpont asks, “for anything like the grandly traditional novel of character development and moral nuance to emerge from societies in extremis, from writers routinely constrained and assailed?” A fair enough question, but also a question concerned with how our form fares in the hands of writers from elsewhere—What will they do with the novel? Anything we need to know about? Why begin a discussion of how Arabic literature traffics in the novel with an emphasis on whether the novels that result are recognizable, welcoming, or even of interest to American readers? That is, why begin an essay on what another literature is saying by first expressing what it is we are most interested in hearing?


I work as an editor at Interlink Publishing, publisher of two of the novels in translation Pierpont discusses. Interlink has been publishing literature in translation for over twenty years, with an overall focus on the Middle East and translations from Arabic; we also recently launched a new imprint, Clockroot Books, to expand our international literature list. Thus I work in the business of making the “insight and information” of foreign literature available. This is a very challenging and often very low-paying endeavor; I can confirm that until the events of 2001, Middle Eastern literature was of little interest to the broader U.S. culture—a situation that, as Pierpont reminds us, could occur again, when media coverage of U.S. involvement in the Middle East dies down.

Of course, even with her characterization of the novels under discussion as those that “may prove to be worth reading even when newspapers divert our attention,” Pierpont isn’t actually suggesting that Arabic literature would cease existing or being of interest—or that, if we momentarily agree with her idea of reading literature as means of civic responsibility, there would not still be ethical reasons to seek out Arabic literature—when the region has left the headlines. But it is fair to hesitate at Pierpont’s broader description of readers and of literature in translation, to hesitate at her accolade for foreign writers as having “the power to translate foreign histories into stories that we can make our own,” her conclusion that “it is unquestionably good to have stories that we hold in common.” Arabic novels, Pierpont says, “[offer] a marvelous array of answers to questions we did not know we wanted to ask.”

image credit: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Instead one could begin by arguing that the first necessary good is to know what stories we do not hold in common; to be concerned not with what we as readers need and can acquire, but what we do not need and do not want, and yet which is being urgently offered anyway—not offered to us for our convenience, but offered. What happens if we begin the discussion of literature in translation not as Pierpont does—as that of needs satisfied—but in the terms of this excess?

I’m not going to write an essay on translation theory, which is not my area of expertise nor necessarily a useful response to a general cultural/literary essay concerned with a conception of the general trade reader. The questions I want to raise aren’t new nor will they be expertly posed, and yet—as is regularly clear to those working in the business of literature in translation—they seem quite distant from, even foreign to, the wider culture. I don’t think it’s controversial to say that the wider American culture is not generally concerned about problems of translation. American culture is stereotypically—and statistically, amazingly so when compared to any European country—uninterested in works of literature from other countries; most of us speak only one language; and if even a publication as sophisticated as The New Yorker can publish an essay that quietly subsumes all problems of translation as falling under the mere mechanics of information conveyance, an essay that more problematically assumes that readers have a right to translation without needing to have an interest in it—well. The current landscape takes shape: in which newspapers themselves struggle, increasingly finding it difficult to fund foreign correspondents because even as people rely on and feel entitled to that content, there seem to be fewer ways by which they can be relied on to pay for it. Americans seem to become interested in news from other countries either through personal connection—heritage, academic study, passion—or acts of violence or disaster that get their attention: September 11, the sales of Haitian literature occurring in the wake of the devastating earthquake. All of which reinforce the idea of the reader as an individual with expectations and needs, needs that some combination of outside forces will meet—a reader who expects what she wants of the broader international world to be accessible. This seems a particularly capitalist conception, perhaps also a willfully innocent one.

The small press publishing literature in translation would seem to have a stake in this idea of accessibility—what we do is make literature from other countries available to readers of English. But how translators and publishers negotiate the problems of “accessibility” is a central, defining challenge. Most people are familiar enough with the general circumstances in the publishing industry: that the current preference is to promote authors rather than individual works, and one cannot do that when publishing an author who is not available for tours, because she lives abroad, doesn’t speak English, or is a canonical writer never before translated, but now deceased; editors themselves speak few languages and there are naturally many obstacles to signing works in languages one doesn’t read; there is a general attitude of distrust toward translation, with readers feeling they’re receiving a lesser version of a work, and a disinterest in translators as artists of equal interest as writers; it is usually more difficult to get reviews, because of review venues’ sense of the general apathy toward translations and because reviewers are often hesitant to comment on translations for which they can’t read the original. I’ll offer a few case histories as illustration of the difficulties.

One of Clockroot’s authors is Margarita Karapanou, whose first novel Kassandra and the Wolf was published by Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich in 1974. In fall 2009 Clockroot reissued Kassandra while releasing for the first time a translation of Karapanou’s third novel, Rien ne va plus; Karapanou’s second novel The Sleepwalker, is forthcoming in translation in fall 2010. Kassandra and the Wolf had what would be considered a fair amount of success for a debut—praised in The New York Times by John Updike and Jerome Charyn—but fell more or less into oblivion, and none of Karapanou’s subsequent work was translated into English until now (Karapanou passed away in 2008). Kassandra is not a “traditional” novel: it’s made up of 56 fragments, ranging in length from a few paragraphs to a few pages, in which its six-year-old narrator guides us through a range of sexual encounters, or rather molestations, a birth and/or an abortion, familial madness and suicide—the novel’s stunning, childlike language skipping vividly, playfully, through an extremely dark adult world.

Kassandra was written under the military junta in Greece (thus was actually published in English before it was published in Greek; in fact the English and Greek editions differ), and its narrator belongs to an upper-class family friendly with “the General,” its servants mourning the defeat of the Left in the civil war. But what does it mean that I provide this last summary? Most reviews in English address this fact similarly—in a few sentences, attempting to include this as necessary background, to be useful guides to contemporary Greek literature without forcing a reductive political reading on the novel. I don’t actually know anything substantive about the junta or recent Greek history, nothing more than what’s provided by Wikipedia, a decade of newspaper-reading, and friendships with Greek writers and translators that have allowed me to enjoy conversations about their lives under the past forty years of changing political circumstances. Most of my sense of anything like the junta comes in fact from literature—the inverse to how Kassandra, for instance, would be read in Greek.

Margarita Karapanou

This isn’t to say that the novel provides insight into or information about Greek history; it doesn’t; it doesn’t have a realist novel’s concern with describing particular historical/political settings or events. All the same, it does have a concrete setting, and mentions in passing the names of military leaders, etc. But one can read any of this fairly well without much explanation (the translation includes some brief footnotes to decode more specific references). The momentum of the novel is not in its commentary on history, or its creation of psychologically realistic characters interacting against a historical setting, but in the narrator’s voice itself. One can read the voice as being upper class, in a militarized society, a society in which civil conflict has recently occurred, without knowing more; having read the novel four or five times, I am almost as ignorant about anything one could call history as when I hadn’t read it at all.

What the novel does take on is something much less easily summarized, something to do with its extraordinary literary qualities, to do with female sexuality and agency, with—well, there isn’t an easy way to describe without reducing; I would need a new critical essay. In her essay Pierpont, too, strains to describe this general difficulty, of interpreting “the relevance of fact to fiction,” concluding: “When reality is framed and shaped by imagination—in novels, as opposed to memoirs or histories—all the truth that we can vouch for is emotional and intellectual, and on the page.” But what does it mean to frame this truth as one “we” (necessarily, American readers) “can vouch for”? When it comes to experiencing art, an “I” or “we” seems natural enough, an expression of subjectivity, the process of personal taste. But when one considers literature from other countries, the stakes change, and the limits of personal taste are exposed. A overemphasis on “we” allows readers who are uninterested in or unmoved by a foreign work’s “emotional and intellectual” truths feel free to ignore it—because we are the standard, we can choose another commodity, one that suits us. That is, if a work doesn’t answer questions we are interested in, we don’t have to answer to it; we privilege our response over what is happening within the work. In this way we might disregard canonical works of other cultures or even entire literatures.

But the foreignness of foreign literature is an irreplaceable value, a value that translators and publishers continuously aim to offer. So perhaps we as readers, too, 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.

Working in the field of international literature, one is accustomed to pitching works such as Kassandra and the Wolf and being turned down because the book “isn’t Greek enough,” “doesn’t feel Greek enough.” Why isn’t international literature allowed to be free of the burden of being a presentable ambassador from another land, here to provide local color and help us find common ground? Contemporary American fiction takes on such subjects as middle-class American life and its institutions: the marriage, the office, the prep school, you name it. We don’t refuse to read these books because we already know “about” these institutions; we “know” those subjects but also know that knowledge can be transformed, and we desire such transformation. We read these literary works looking for a literary experience. We do not demand that American literature be read as a proxy for history or political analysis, but it seems we often comfortably make this demand of other literatures. American literature is assumed to offer the “unquestionable good” of a literary experience, but for international literature to be worthy of our attention, it is asked to provide an extra-literary experience—to “feel Greek,” to teach us something useful about the Arab world.

This spring Clockroot will publish Touch, a novella by Palestinian writer Adania Shibli. Only 35, Shibli has received several Palestinian and Arabic literary awards, and her work has been translated into French, German, Italian, Hebrew, Korean. Touch was recently highlighted by the prominent trade magazine Publishers Weekly as one of ten spring debut fiction titles of note: an uncommon, nice bit of publicity for a small press such as ourselves and for a writer who doesn’t write in English. As publishers we were asked to offer a “pitch” for the novella that the feature could quote. Touch doesn’t have a conventional plot structure or really almost any events: it is narrated from the perspective of a young girl (no precise age given, which merited a query from PW) in a large family in a Palestinian village. What is singular about the novella is how the young girl’s sensory experience is rendered: everyday activities and sensations occur in slow, strange, precise detail, so that the tangible world becomes suffocating, somehow made alienating through extreme detail, while the outside world, the larger questions of the Palestinian setting and history, is merely sketched, left vague, distant. This makes the novella fascinating, generally challenging; it also makes it stand out among contemporary Arabic fiction, most of which deals with historical events and politics centrally and in realist terms, often to a point that can seem didactic or polemical to American readers (something Pierpont addresses, with her concern about how the novel fares in the hands of writers in societies in extremis).

Really, what made us sign Shibli immediately was her stylistic originality: her ability to achieve the extraordinary effects of sensation described above, through a spare, even blunt writing; her writing noticeably lacks the floweriness, the wealth and dramatic register of metaphor that characterize much of Arabic prose and which can make translating Arabic literature a particular challenge. In our current moment in American literature, where spareness and minimalism are set at a premium, Arabic prose can sound overwrought, heavy-handed. Shibli’s writing enters English more easily, on both micro levels (her sentences) and macro (the subtle, complex ways in which she lets violence cast shadows continuously on the narration, but always from a distance). She was thus an exciting writer to discover—young, but such a distinctive voice—and appealing in that one could imagine her writing, even as it is more “experimental” than “realist,” being as widely read as that of some of her contemporaries, because of her unusual, deft handling of politics. But none of this comes out to a pithy publisher’s pitch: the novel is most distinctive for stylistic reasons, not anything one could say it’s “about,” and those stylistic reasons have to do with the writer’s distinct innovations in a literature with which most American readers are unfamiliar. This “literary” context, then, is as difficult to summarize, for different but related reasons, as the historical context of Kassandra and the Wolf I discussed earlier.


Reviews or publishers’ presentations of works of international literature will usually include such simplified summaries of context as the ones I attempted above—imperfect, but useful. I want to call these “useful” not in that they can actually ever tell us anything substantial about another history, culture, or literature—but rather as an apt reminder of everything we don’t know. Such summaries grab us by the elbow and pull us for a moment off the path of our usual reading, to show us the look-out, the drop-off, the vista of all the readings of this work we can’t access. And yet, miraculously, there’s a book in front of us that we can read: a work that has a complex relationship to the “original,” a work that has somehow (through the artistry of translators and efforts of publishers) moved from that distant vista into our hands, and can be read and enjoyed as “simply” as anything.

This is not in fact a simple pleasure, but it is a simply literary pleasure—a pleasure related to the challenges of reading any great work of literature. How we read translated literature reveals what we value in all literature: how through literature families can become foreign; fictional places can become intimately known; phrases we have never heard before can take on rich emotional meanings.

To offer one last example: in the last few years a number of translations into English have appeared of Palestinian “national poet” Mahmoud Darwish, who was the major figure of Palestinian literature of the last generation, and passed away in 2008 at age 67. An excerpt from his poem “Silence for Gaza” (translated by Iraqi writer Sinan Antoon, whose novella I’jaam Pierpont discusses) maybe can itself suggest an alternative model for reading literature in translation. This poem does not fit easily into mainstream US politics; nor, with its overt politics, its emphasis on political over “poetical” expression, does it fit that gracefully into our contemporary poetry scene. Yet Darwish is a central figure of Arabic and Palestinian poetry, of Palestinian politics, and this poem should not be discounted:

[Gaza] does not care that much if we know its name, picture, or eloquence. It did not believe that it was material for media. It did not prepare for cameras and did not put smiling paste on its face.

Neither does it want that, nor we.

Hence, Gaza is bad business for merchants and hence it is an incomparable moral treasure for Arabs.

What is beautiful about Gaza is that our voices do not reach it. Nothing distracts it; nothing takes its fist away from the enemy’s face. Not the forms of the Palestinian state we will establish whether on the eastern side of the moon, or the western side of Mars when it is explored. Gaza is devoted to rejection… hunger and rejection, thirst and rejection, displacement and rejection, torture and rejection, siege and rejection, death and rejection.

[. . .]

It will continue to explode.

It is neither death, nor suicide. It is Gaza’s way of declaring that it deserves to live.

As a reader of international literature, I’d like to go ahead and replace the question “what else do we need?” with something more urgent and less reasonable: what is it to “deserve to live”? This of course is an impossible question, even irritatingly so—but nicely, it is also an essential American value that all words offered by all individuals deserve expression, that this is the necessary, difficult exchange on which society should be based. If we begin reading with the idea that all writers and their words “deserve to live,” rather than beginning with an account of ourselves and our desires, then we are taking these ideas of freedom and exchange less comfortably and more seriously—even in the everyday acts of picking up a newspaper or novel. We don’t even have to conceive of this as an ethical practice, but as a literary one. Literature in translation is a crossing of borders, but shouldn’t be thought of just as one of the easier border crossings—tourism, reportage, whatever sort of casual interest or genealogical research—but remembering the violent invasions and migrations that make up our real world and thus the theoretical field of translation. It’s useful to think of reading literature in translation not as a means of gathering “insight and information,” but as a means of experiencing acts of resistance that occur between languages, between cultures, “simply” between reader and writer. Literature isn’t offered to us in response to a need we know how to express, but perhaps as a fist is offered to a face, or vice versa—it’s just our good fortune to experience all this from the comfortable distance of the page.

Hilary Plum is codirector of Clockroot Books and an editor with Interlink Publishing. She’s presently an MFA candidate in fiction at UMass Amherst.

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