Translating the Nobel Prize Decision
Like a slugger pointing to the bleachers before a home run, Horace Engdahl telegraphed where the Swedish Academy was going: The 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded to the French novelist Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio. (Le Clezio's bio.)
And to a lot of readers, at least on this side of the Atlantic, it's going to seem that the Swedes have followed Wee Willie Keeler's advice: "Hit 'em where they ain't."
Le Clezio is well known in France, of course, but not in the United States. Last week, Engdahl -- who is permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which awards the $1.4 million prize -- tried to explain to the Associated Press why the last American to win the Nobel in literature was Toni Morrison in 1993. Since then, nine of the recipients have been Europeans, including last year's winner, Doris Lessing of Britain.
"The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature," Engdahl said. "That ignorance is restraining."
Engdahl's remarks were not well received by Americans, to put it mildly.
On "Prairie Home Companion," Garrison Keillor made fun of his name and mocked Swedish literature as mainly novels about people who brood for a long time until, finally, something heavy falls on them.
Other American authors offered to send Engdahl a reading list. And, indeed, there are plenty of U.S. authors who have been perenially hailed as strong candidates for the prize, including Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, Joyce Carol Oates and Don DeLillo. Internationally, there has been a lot of betting (literally, at Ladbroke's) in recent years on Amos Oz of Israel (though it would have been awkward to announce him as a winner this year, when the announcement fell on Yom Kippur) and on Haruki Murakami of Japan and Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru.
But, still, what is one to make of Engdahl's comments that American literature is too "insular" and that we "don't translate enough?"
I plead innocent on the first charge and guilty on the second.
I think the idea that American literature is insular is bogus. It says a good deal, perhaps, about European views of our foreign policy. But it has little to do with the reality of "our" literature, whatever that is. These shores teem with writers from all over the world, and American literature (again, whatever that is, today, because so much of it is written by people who were not born in America, or who have significant roots somewhere else) pulses with diversity.
Case in point: Le Clezio (!), who lives part of the year in New Mexico. Book World has had its eye on him for a long time. In a 1994 review of two of his novels, The Prospector and The Mexican Dream, our reviewer wrote that "Before there was multiculturalism, there was the work of Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio."
But on the question of translation, Engdahl has a point. Again, taking Le Clezio as an example, some of his books are available in English, including Terra Amata, War, The Giants and The Book of Flights, which were mentioned by the Swedish Academy in its citation of him as an "ecologically engaged author." But many of his works have not been published in English translations, including, as far as I'm aware, his 2007 memoir/essay Ballaciner.
Maybe we should brood on this for a while. Until something heavy falls on us. Like a Nobel Prize.
Please email us to report offensive comments.
Posted by: toby | October 9, 2008 11:52 AM
Posted by: Trilingual reader | October 9, 2008 12:57 PM
Posted by: Gerard | October 9, 2008 3:33 PM
Posted by: Dreamer | October 9, 2008 4:47 PM
Posted by: Karen | October 9, 2008 4:59 PM
Posted by: Johann Tienhaara | October 9, 2008 6:12 PM
Posted by: Don | October 9, 2008 6:28 PM
Posted by: Karen | October 9, 2008 6:51 PM
Posted by: Andrew | October 9, 2008 8:00 PM
Posted by: joe | October 9, 2008 8:41 PM
Posted by: Stephen | October 9, 2008 9:24 PM
Posted by: A Swede | October 9, 2008 11:41 PM
Posted by: Frenchlieut | October 9, 2008 11:47 PM
Posted by: American girl in Stockholm | October 10, 2008 2:23 AM
Posted by: Alex | October 10, 2008 4:58 AM
Posted by: Jaime | October 10, 2008 6:54 AM
Posted by: Christine | October 10, 2008 10:50 AM
Posted by: post.com producer | October 10, 2008 12:33 PM
Posted by: A Swede | October 10, 2008 1:48 PM
Posted by: Johann Tienhaara | October 10, 2008 2:26 PM
Posted by: Alex | October 10, 2008 4:35 PM
Posted by: Quadrilingual American (really) | October 12, 2008 11:21 AM
Posted by: Quadrilingual American (really) | October 12, 2008 11:23 AM
Posted by: Alex | October 12, 2008 5:45 PM
The comments to this entry are closed.