The Three Percent Problem
Kenneth Reeds, world languages and cultures
Although it most certainly began earlier, 2008 was when it hit the press (and the fan). Horace Engdhal, gave an interview where he accused the U.S. literary world of lacking something important. While he didn’t mention anyone by name, he argued that writers like Updike, Oates, DeLillo, and Roth were overly-sensitive to national trends and therefore only obliquely participated in the larger, worldwide, literary dialogue. In comments he must have known would provoke controversy, he declared that the U.S. was too “isolated” and “insular”. He had to have been aware of the effect he would incite because he was the permanent secretary of the Nobel-awarding Swedish Academy. After these ideas were expressed it felt obvious that the aforementioned authors need not wait for an early-morning phone call from Stockholm. A further reaction has been the back and forth of essayists, journalists, and authors who have responded to Engdhal’s words with either support or derision. Our country’s problem with belly-button complex is, of course, larger than literature and perhaps it is appropriate that a novel like White Noise should reflect our lives while its university context and themes of consumerism and media would feel disconnected from an average mid-1980s Indian, Chinese, or Russian (although it might feel more appropriate to many citizens of those countries in 2014; was it therefore -internationally speaking- before its time?).
Arguably one of the more important aspects of this issue is one of translation. It is a simple fact that the U.S. book market remains the largest in the world and only 3% is made up of texts that have been translated into English. Of those, only about 0.7% are fiction and poetry. The publishing world refers to this as the “3% problem” and it seems perhaps overly easy to connect these numbers with Engdhal’s criticism. Nobel prizes aside, this is indeed an issue that needs to be addressed. It can only be assumed that publishers shun books from other languages because they do not sell well. This means we need to look in the mirror and ask ourselves why we avoid reading books in translation. Could this have something to do with many people’s trepidation of learning a new language? What about subtitled films from other languages?
The other is a mirror that can cast an uncomfortable gaze back. A good place to start to reduce the otherness is the New York Review of Books list of classics. While not all of them are translations, at the very least it demonstrates to Mr. Engdhal that a portion of the 0.7% was chosen with good taste.