Found in translation

Found in translation

Many have highlighted the potential benefits of reading translated literature, and with novels like Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, it seems that translated works are performing better than ever. Despite this, however, reports show that as of 2018, only 5.63% of published work in the UK is translated fiction. So, what are we as a nation missing out on through this omission? If Henry James-Garrett’s newly published book, This Book Will Make You Kinder, is anything to go by, I believe we are missing out on the opportunity to learn how to be kinder. 

James-Garrett, who spent time as a PhD candidate researching empathy and metaethics, writes that "we are kind (to the extent we are) because we possess the capacity for empathy […] It’s thanks to empathy that you care about experiences that are not your own. And that is why you are kind." Therefore, he believes that many examples of malice are caused by what he terms "empathy-limiting mistakes", and that this "tendency for our empathy to be sabotaged by our lack of knowledge about other people’s lives and our impact on them, accounts for the larger part of human cruelty."

This ignorance around the lives of others is where I believe translated literature can offer a solution. He acknowledges that in today’s world, the current power structure maintains its position through the control of stories – it decides whose stories are worth telling, whose will be believed and whose can be manipulated for structural gains. James-Garrett asks, "How does one become less prone to ignorance-induced cruelty? The answer is simple: We just have to listen" - and by listening, he means "any conscious effort we make to learn about and internalize someone else’s experience".

While you may be questioning why reading British literature is not sufficient for this task, we must remember that there are ample reports that demonstrate that the lack of diversity in our publishing sector is still a huge problem, and that if James-Garrett’s theory is to be believed, reading stories from further afield can offer us the chance to cultivate more empathy for those who live beyond our tiny island. 

James-Garrett explains how evolution might have used kin selection as a method to foster our altruistic behaviours, and that this can leave empathy gaps between ourselves and those outside of our particular social groups. I believe, however, that this gap can be tightened when we are able to locate shared experiences in others’ stories – those such as our ability to love, to hate, to feel fear and to wonder. It is difficult to maintain a lack of empathy when we are trailing similar emotional landscapes and when we are forced to reconcile with the fact that there are experiences that we do share, even when a world apart. 

Although we mustn’t think that there is nothing to learn from the differences in our stories either. A fact acknowledged by Rónán Hession, author of Leonard and Hungry Paul, who emphasises that "Literature and culture are ways for us to exchange lived experiences, and this exchange is fundamentally an act of respect. The most culturally porous part of us is our imaginations, so it’s through these international stories that we stand the best chance of transcending what separates us". This exchange of stories lies at the heart of translation work and ensures that reading more translated literature can allow us to interact with the stories of marginalised groups. In a world where the use of English is so dominant, it is easy to go unheard or be dismissed when using another language. This leads to the underrepresentation of members of our own community and beyond and there have been calls for the decolonisation of the publishing industry and the need to decentre whiteness in the writing that is published as a result.

So, how can the publishing industry focus on the inclusion of translated literature? 

It may help to start by taking a look at the publishers who are already doing great work in this area, such as And Other Stories or Charco Press, or perhaps beginning to seek out collaboration with the many academic communities where translation work is practiced regularly and valued highly, such as Out of the Wings. It will involve reaching out to publishers from every inch of the globe and being willing to promote stories that are different from our own. Perhaps we should even consider the use of James-Garrett’s book in promotional campaigns as an example of the advantages of reading in translation. The possibilities are endless - and important to grasp hold of now.

Jodie Hare is a freelance writer and has just finished an MA in Modern Languages, Literature and Culture at King's College London.