3 for Thursday: 3 Reasons to Read Literature in Translation

Rosetta Stone Top: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Middle: demotic script Bottom: Greek script

Rosetta Stone
Top: Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. Middle: Demotic Bottom: Greek
IMG Source: Wikimedia

“So many books, so little time” certainly rings true even if you’re only counting the bestseller lists, or the Indie Next list, or just your own never-ending TBR. But it’s worse than that, because the majority of those lists are just English books. What about all the great literature being published in other languages?

Determined to read more of it, in the last month I’ve read novels translated from Flemish, Korean, and Dutch. The Dutch title, Gerbrand Bakker’s Ten White Geese, is one of the most memorable books I’ve read so far this year (review coming soon).

That good experience led me to ponder this a bit. In case you need the encouragement, I’ve come up with at least 3 reasons to add more translated works to your list.

1. It reminds you how big the world is.

Of the approximately 2.2 million books published every year, less than 500,000 are published in the US, UK, and Canada combined. Stop to think about that for a second. So many chroniclers of culture. So many independent thinkers creatively expressing their unique points of view. Not to be overly dramatic here, but what a tiny piece of the human experience we can ever know!

2. It fosters empathy.

If it’s not your native language, it’s probably not your native perspective on the world. Entering into a non-English centered perspective adds another layer to that complex living organism that is our understanding of the world and our place in it. Sharing these experiences (to the extent that reading allows a shared experience) doesn’t make us all the same – in fact, it highlights some of the significant differences – but it helps us to begin to understand others. As Native American novelist Louise Erdrich wrote, “No one gets wise enough to really understand the heart of another, though it is the task of our life to try.”

3. It encourages more translation.

Only 3% of books published in the US are works in translation. So this is a commercial reason to read translations, a vote-with-your-feet reason. The more we purchase and read works in translation, the more titles we can expect to be translated, increasing our exposure to new writers and their ideas. A number of organizations are working toward this, including InTranslation, which publishes translations of non-English works, and Three Percent, which promotes awareness and reviews translated books (and is where I learned of the Gerbrand Bakker novel).

If you’re multi-lingual, all the better to read in the original languages, of course. But for those of us who aren’t (or whose linguistic skills are limited to dead languages), translated works are a window on our diverse, communicating world. Grab one and enjoy an interesting new view.

In search of belief changing ideas