Remember the Last Time You Read Translated Literature? Yeah, Me Neither

Photo courtesy of Abby Chang

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, the library of the college where I’m currently studying abroad ran a special event: students could email the librarian expressing their interest in having a blind date with a book. The next day, students would go to their mailbox to collect their literary “date,” gift-wrapped and pinned with a piece of heart-shaped chocolate. As a self-proclaimed bibliophile, I had to seize the chance. I’ve been in love with my date — Théophile Gautier’s Mademoiselle de Maupin — ever since.

The fact is, I was never exposed to much translated literature growing up in the U.S. Even as a voracious reader in middle school, the only translated literature I can remember reading is “scanlated” Japanese manga and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. In high school, I was introduced to other translated classics like Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, but translated literature still made up only a small part of my literary diet — and the few translated works that I did read were rarely, if ever, contemporary.

I really only started to read contemporary translated literature after I took an interest in the practice of literary translation myself, translating stories from Korean to English. From Han Kang’s The Vegetarian to Young-ha Kim’s Diary of a Murderer, it didn’t take me long to realize just how much I’d been missing out on. Here was a whole world of different cultures and imaginations. How many more were there that I had neglected, though they had always been — thanks to translators — just at my grasp?

I don’t think I’m alone in my isolation. Unless they took an active interest in reading books in translation, people I’ve talked to in the U.S. more or less seem to have had a similar lack of exposure to contemporary translated literature, or even translated literature in general. One of the biggest culture shocks I’ve gotten while traveling to various parts of Asia and the UK is the sheer amount of translated literature in their bookstores, despite them having their own prolific writing communities. Compared to the rest of the reading world, America just doesn’t seem to read as many books that have been translated from foreign languages.

To me, this is a tragedy for several reasons. First, reading translated literature (and international literature in general) helps us understand cultures that are different from our own. A book that has been translated directly from another culture gives you a far more immersive (and, arguably, authentic) experience of that culture than a book that has been written about that culture in English. In an increasingly globalized world, it isn’t enough to understand that different cultures have different perspectives. In order to better evaluate and enrich our own culture and perspective, we have to try and understand what other cultures and perspectives actually are, and reading translated literature — especially contemporary translated literature — is one of the best ways to do it. In a time where diversity is increasingly valued, it’s time America embraced a diversity of voices beyond its own borders.

Reading translated literature isn’t only good for understanding how we differ, it’s also excellent for understanding how we resemble each other. As James Baldwin brilliantly put, “You think your pain and the heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” Translation’s crowning glory is that it’s made possible for people to read books from across a vastly wider range of cultures. By reading how other cultures have grappled with the human condition, we can further develop cross-cultural empathy.

Of course, no translation is perfect, but that just gives us another reason for why we should read more translated literature: it can inspire and motivate us to learn the source language. For example, Gautier’s masterful Romantic style enchanted me and inspired me to start learning French. And setting a specific goal for language-learning (e.g., to become able to read Mademoiselle de Maupin in the original French) is much more conducive to progress than a vague one (e.g., to get better at French). It’s an endeavor that can only benefit me — and anyone else learning a language — in the long run.

At this point, you might be asking: so where can I read more contemporary translated literature? Fortunately, we live in a world where books can be delivered to our door with a single mouse-click. But it can be hard to make that kind of financial commitment, especially if you’re a student. Asking the librarian at your local library is always a good idea, but if you find that your library is lacking in books in translation — or you’re simply feeling too lazy to walk to the library, like me — Words Without Borders is a fantastic resource for accessing the latest in contemporary translated literature. You can also easily find language-specific resources, such as LTI Korea’s digital library of Korean literature in English.

With so many online and offline resources, it’s never been easier to access translated literature, and there’s arguably never been a better time to do it than now. With the global pandemic forcing strict limits on international travel, being able to immerse ourselves in other cultures from the comfort of our own homes is a luxury that we would all do better to capitalize on. So the next time you find yourself in need of a date, go find yourself a nice book in translation — it might actually change your life.


  1. You are correct that it is unfortunately difficult to get some translated books in English. However, Elena Ferrante, Stieg Larsson, Haruki Murakami, Min Jin Lee, and Karl Ove Knausgaard have all written US best-sellers in the past ten years, all of them translated into English from Italian, Swedish, Japanese, Korean and Norwegian. Many people don’t think of them as being as translated and they are not typically marketed as such.

  2. While I agree that written perspectives on different cultures and different parts of the world can broaden our overall view of things, I think it might be too charitable to say that translated literature has this complete power to expose ourselves to something drastically new and outside of our comfort zone. We must keep in mind that the background of the translator too, then, which most people don’t think about: I’m sure we all agree that it’s impossible to really transfer all meaning and nuance from one language to another, from one cultural background to another, from one set of norms to another. (You admit this problem of translation in your piece.) So the translator plays a really large role actually in how the book is presented to us in the language to which the work is translated. I’d actually argue that a book translated from a foreign language by an American translator into English might actually be culturally more digestable to you than you’d think, which might actually distort your experience of the foreign culture at hand.

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