Changing the Literary Default from English or: To the English-Lit Lovers Who Should Be Reading This but Aren’t

This essay was originally published in the Autumn 2019 issue of Korean Literature Now

I write this essay with three memories in mind. Each one surfaces every now and then, mostly when I am doing some mundane mindless task alone—selecting green beans or squeezing kiwifruits at the supermarket, making coffee after dropping the kids off at childcare, fighting the eternally lost battle to straighten up my bookshelves.

For the sake of retaining some semblance of organization, I’ll recount the incidents in order of when they happened. The first one occurred before I made the decision to stop being an academic, when I was a lecturer at the University of Newcastle in Australia. I was teaching a course on world literature with a specific focus on works by Asian writers. After the first class, I received an email from one of the students. She had been under the impression that the “world literature” in the course title referred to European literature. Since this wasn’t the case, she had decided to withdraw.

The second incident occurred during my final months teaching at the same institution. I had been informed at the start of the semester that my application for a continuing position (the Australian equivalent of “tenure-track”) had been unsuccessful, and as such, my contract would not be renewed. I was severely demoralized and decided to quit academia for good once the semester was up. A few weeks after I made this decision, I received an email that disheartened me even further. It was from one of the tutors under my supervision, an older British woman who had always been very nice to me. In the message, she lamented the poor quality of the handful of translated works I had assigned as readings for the first-year English course I was coordinating with another colleague.

The pieces in question included stories by Nikolai Gogol, Haruki Murakami, and Mo Yan (translated by some of the most respected translators in the business: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, Jay Rubin, and Howard Goldblatt). She noted that this was especially the case for the Mo Yan story. (I wonder nowadays whether this influenced the way she ran her tutorials. This wasn’t very good, but let’s make the best of it, shall we? I imagine her saying to the students.)

The third incident occurred just last year at a literary festival in Adelaide, long after I’d made the transition from academia into full- time literary translation and novel-writing. To my delight I was put on a two-person panel with the Indonesian author Eka Kurniawan, whom I’d translated once and had corresponded with via email, but had never met in person. The focus was on Indonesian fiction. During the Q&A, an audience member—an elderly Caucasian gentleman—asked if I’d ever felt the need to improve a work I was translating because the original wasn’t very good.

I dredge up these incidents and collect them here in order to analyze why they still leave such a bad taste in my mouth. The intention behind each one was innocent enough and probably not meant to cause harm. I think it has to do with the casual prejudices they lay bare: there are students who think European writing is interesting, but not Asian writing; there are teachers who perceive translated literary works as inferior; there are readers who believe that foreign writing may need to undergo improvement in order to meet certain standards.

Perhaps even more depressing is the fact that in each of these instances, actual exposure to literature in translation served as a catalyst for the expression of such prejudices: the rejection of unfamiliar titles from the neighboring continent; disappointment with what foreign writers and translators have to offer; the implication that Indonesian writing may not be up to snuff. Those who love and support literature in translation would like to believe that translation has the power to open minds, change hearts, forge connections, and incinerate bigotries. I too would like to believe this. But within powerful linguistic communities such as the Anglosphere (and perhaps in this day and age, it is only the Anglosphere that so stubbornly asserts its right to possess such stunted taste buds), unless translated literature becomes utterly the norm rather than the exception, unless the default literary setting is switched from “English” to “all languages,” the occasional encounter with a foreign text will do nothing to shake preexisting chauvinisms.

So how does the default get changed? Is it heresy to say, in the context of a column aimed at a translator readership, that I’m not sure literary translators can do much beyond what they are doing now? Ironically, what I’m about to propose is directed at the people in the Anglosphere who are unlikely to be reading this essay; so I may as well be blunt.

The Anglosphere should stop giving primacy to English literature (that is, literature written originally in English). Especially in educational contexts: schools and universities and creative writing classes too. Unless equivalent time, rigor, and resources are devoted to teaching literary works from other languages and cultures—so that English literature is always presented as one sub-group of literature existing alongside many, many others—the impression that students will always be left with, in all its falsity, is: Literature is composed mainly of English literature. And the benchmark by which the merits of a literary work will be measured will always be these same English-language literary texts, which students are told to spend so much time and energy scrutinizing that an impression of their “greatness” is conveyed. After all, we invest time and effort in what is valuable.

Believe me, I myself am surprised that I’m proposing such measures. I love English literature. I have a BA and PhD in the subject, and enjoyed teaching and researching it for many years. I adore Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters. I think fondly of Middlemarch once a week. I used to have a crush on Sherlock Holmes, and when I visited London, my head was continuously filled with Virginia Woolf. The literary influences for my latest novel include F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ford Madox Ford.

But this is the problem. Only in these past several years have I realized the depths of my ignorance. I used to believe I knew so much about literature, when actually, my knowledge is extremely limited and very culturally specific.

I love English literature because I don’t know any other literatures well enough, not even Indonesian literature which I translate. My impulse, as much as any other English literature aficionado, is to hug my editions of Shakespeare and sob that he’s special, for why else would the rest of the world be obsessed with performing his plays? But in my heart, I know the reason: power carves the channels that determine how Culture with a capital C flows among countries and their inhabitants. Political force and economic clout, erstwhile and extant, play a hand in determining which nations’ literary works are deemed timeless masterpieces and which aren’t. As terrific as Shakespeare is, it’s undeniable that the cultural aftereffects of the British Empire and the undue influence of another Anglosphere member (i.e., the US) have played an enormous part in ensuring the perpetually “trending” status of these English literary canon staples. (By the way, the same can be said for the influence of mainland China in promoting certain works throughout the Sinosphere and beyond. Lest we forget, Western countries aren’t the only colonial powers.)

To clarify: I’m not saying English literature shouldn’t be taught. Rather, the attention and veneration it receives should be radically redistributed to include literary works from other languages too—and not just the usual suspects from the Western literary canon (e.g., Kafka, Tolstoy, Flaubert), or the Asian literary canon for that matter (e.g., The Dream of the Red Chamber, the Ramayana, and The Tale of Genji). And no, I don’t think it’s a problem that such literature be taught in translation, as would most likely be necessary for this plan to be implemented. Literary translation is a skill, and works in translation are collaborative works of art just as worth reading as original-language works. As Norman Erikson Pasaribu likes to say of my translation of his poetry collection Sergius Seeks Bacchus: it’s the same work, but in a parallel dimension. A different version of itself, but no lesser for it.

In fact, it is through studying and learning to revere works through translation that the Anglosphere is likeliest to learn what it means to appreciate new phrases, forms, and styles that diverge from those we’re most comfortable with. Because it’ll mean that our narrow conceptions of what constitutes “good” writing in English will go bang! And then the universe can start to unfurl.