Progressive politics, ideas & culture


Isolationism: lost in translations

This Magazine Staff

image courtesy Slate magazine

There’s a good debate going on over at the Euston Manifesto site concerning how the left should think about Israel/Lebanon.

While the good folks of Euston figure out my opinion on that, I’ve been doing some more thinking about another of my geo-political preoccupations – Americanism, minus the anti. The following discussion would get the EM stamp of approval. I think.

The Times Literary Supplement recently published a fascinating short essay by Lawrence Venuti, Temple University English professor, in which he identifies and discusses the United States’ reluctance to learn about the rest of the world through its various literatures and cultural exports. Venuti writes:

“Seventy-five per cent of the films shown worldwide are made in Hollywood, while the number of foreign films available in the US remains negligible. Every year translated books range between 10 and 25 per cent of total output in most European countries, while in American publishing the figure hovers around 2 per cent. In 2004 this meant roughly 4,000 translations out of 195,000 books, including some 800 works of foreign fiction. The numbers may seem high, but don’t be misled. In competing for advertising, reviews and shelf space, foreign books always lose out, ultimately sinking like stones in the immensity of print.”

This is no surprise to the average Canadian traveling in the States. Bookshelves at Barnes and Noble look remarkably similar to bookshelves back home at Indigo, just minus the obligatory Canadian content. The Paramount (Toronto) Chapters/Indigo has a Politics section containing every single Ann Coulter book, while the Carbondale, Illinois Barnes and Noble hasn’t, as far as I could tell, a single title by Janice Gross Stein. Venuti continues:

“The charge of cultural imperialism does not seem all that exaggerated. Some observers might go further: the patterns established over the past fifty years have apparently created American readers with provincial tastes, unable to appreciate work from foreign cultures and beset by feelings of inadequacy when confronted with it. Hence readers turn suspicious, if not downright xenophobic, and retreat into the comfort of the familiar.”

“…Has the will to achieve global dominance been nurtured by the exclusion of foreign cultures at home? Would greater openness to cultural differences have led to a more circumspect policy in dealing with foreign governments?”

The essay goes on to describe how translations of American works abroad – the writings of Tom Clancy, the films of Woody Allen— also contribute to a skewed understanding of American culture throughout the rest of the world. Apparently, translators hold immense geopolitical power. It reminds me of Honey Huan, Gary Trudeau’s Chinese translator character in Doonesbury, who makes her immediate translation decisions based on her own peculiar political beliefs.

If anyone wants the full essay, apparently I am allowed to e-mail it to you, though most TLS content is behind a subscriber wall. For some free opinion by Professor Venuti, check here:

Words Without Borders

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