McCulture: Americans Have Developed an Admirable Fondness for Books, Food, and Music That Preprocess Other Cultures. but for All Our Enthusiasm, Have We Lost Our Taste for the Truly Foreign?

Article excerpt

AS A CHILD, I LIVED IN A HOUSE WHERE WE spoke only Hebrew. I remember relatives from the American side of the family complaining about my parents' language policy when they visited our house in New York. "She'll suffer if she doesn't speak English at home," one worried. "She won't be able to write well enough to get into college:' But something unexpected happened as my Israeli mother sang the Psalms to my siblings and me while we bathed: Empires fell. The Berlin Wall literally came down. Droves of immigrants and refugees--huddled masses who had long yearned to be free--changed London, Berlin, Tel Aviv, and New York. India rose, China skyrocketed, and four young Israelis invented instant messaging. Bilingual kids like me, toting odd foods at lunch and speaking with their mothers in something unintelligible, were suddenly not the problem, but the glittering future.

I did learn to write in English well enough to get into college. So did an entire generation of bilingual writers who discovered that another language rumbling in their ears was an advantage on the page, a double richness. For a third of the 21 writers on Granta's 2007 Best Young American Novelists list, English is a second language.

It's not just in the literary world where attitudes have changed. A name Americans have a hard time pronouncing, like Aviya, used to be a problem. I was urged to take a nickname to make things easier, by well-meaning dorm neighbors and even people I interviewed over the years, who asked if they could "call you something else." No one says that anymore. Instead, I get asked what Aviya means. With the election of a man named Barack Obama to the presidency, a man who introduced himself to the country at the 2004 Democratic convention with a speech about having an unusual name and a dual background, a new kind of translator is moving to the forefront of American culture. It is now cool to be half.

In areas ranging from politics to food to music to literature, suddenly we want to hear as much as possible from people who grew up in two worlds at once. The trend is especially noticeable in literature, where plenty of the best new writing in English seems to meld two languages and two ways of thought--the farther apart and more exotic, and the more seamlessly combined, the better. Obama himself has written a border-crossing memoir that leaps from Hawaii to Kenya to Chicago.

If a collection of stories about China written in English gains attention, or a memoir about growing up half-Kenyan, then you might think a translation of a work by a major Chinese writer or a leading Kenyan novelist would sell out. But the reverse seems to be true. Translations are rarely bestsellers; it can be hard to find a newly translated book at a megabookstore, even if that book was hugely important in its home country. Solid numbers on translated books published in the United States are difficult to come by, but in a 2007 New York Times report on the international book market, writer Jascha Hoffman determined that less than three percent of all hooks published in the United States in 2004 were translated; 3.54 percent of new adult fiction published in the United States in 2005 was translated.

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Others who track translations say that more recent numbers are also embarrassingly low. Chad W. Post, who runs the Open Letter press at the University of Rochester, which publishes literature in translation, and Three Percent, a blog on international literature, estimates that 356 new translated fiction and poetry titles were published in the United States in 2008. He doesn't include retranslations--say, a new Jorge Luis Borges--in his count because he wants to know who the new voices are. "You could probably almost read all the translations that come out in a year," he says.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is reading outside the lines, as anyone who walks through a European airport bookstore can attest: Twenty-five percent of books published in Spain in 2004 were translations, according to Hoffman's study. …