Are there lots of foreign masterpieces we are being kept in ignorance of because publishers continue stubbornly to resist translating them? The Guardian airs this question, though the slightly confusing article seems to be focussing on children’s books. I would think that children’s books were the least likely category to be translated: childhood is so culture specific. Mommy, Mammy, Mummy, Mom, Mum, Maman, Mutti: just which way are you going to jump?

It goes without saying that many, many books haven’t been translated. Some of them of course needn’t be and don’t deserve to be, but I suppose we can assume that there are significant numbers of really good books out there just waiting to be Englished. I’m not sure why The Guardian starts off with Erich Kästner’s Emil und die Detektive. Anyone who studied German back in school probably read this in the original, so it can scarcely count as an unknown masterpiece. Furthermore it appears to be available in translation from Puffin Books and was seen on a front-of-store table at Waterstones over Christmas in a Vintage paperback edition. I dare say there aren’t too many German or French masterpieces we have overlooked.  You might fail to knock me over with a feather if you revealed that there were one or two Russian masterpieces awaiting translation, though I would be surprised. Polish maybe. Chinese, Japanese, Korean, of course. Arabic for sure: The Times Literary Supplement recently reviewed Leg over Leg by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, translated by Humphrey Davies which certainly sounds like a classic. Its 1,100+ pages have doubtless inhibited publishers in the past. Now it finds its way under the banner of New York University Press’ Library of Arabic Literature. At $17 each for the two paperbacks into which the four volumes have been bound, it’s well worth a try. This series, like Harvard’s Murtys, will no doubt reveal several masterpieces about which we have (mostly) lived in ignorance.

Chad Post, a man with skin in this game, as well as an axe to grind, tells us here of twenty foreign masterpieces which we haven’t read — although these ones have in fact already been translated into English. Of course “we” have read them all — not me — but someone. They may not be bestsellers, and they may even deserve to be bestsellers, but a number of copies of each has of course been sold, and one or two of them no doubt have actually been read. To be fair, the suggestion that we haven’t read these may have come from Publishers Weekly not Mr Post who continues his tireless advocacy for the translation of yet more books into English.

 

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