I’m often asked that double-barrelled question, especially by Thais who hold Chart Korbjitti to be literary as good as or even better than Saneh Sangsuk and don’t understand that the latter has made a splash in France and Europe, to the point of becoming a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres, whereas the two best novels of the former, a Thai National Artist, have been commercial flops.
I usually explain this away by Saneh’s iconoclastic views and seductive flamboyant style in contrast to Chart’s steadier, deceptively lackluster prose.
A more fundamental answer perhaps is to be found in a Times Literary Supplement’s article published in the April 20, 2011 issue, which has yet to reach my mailbox, and kindly brought to my attention by a reader of this blog. You’ll find it (this week) at entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/the_tls/article7174216.ece.
It’s written by novelist Tim Parks and entitled ‘The Nobel individual and the paradoxes of “international literature”’.
Here are a few excerpts:
A novelist is not famous today unless internationally famous, not recognized unless recognized everywhere. Even the recognition extended to him in his home country is significantly increased if he is recognized abroad. The smaller the country he lives in, the less important his language on the international scene, the more this is the case. So if for the moment the phenomenon is only vaguely felt in Anglophile cultures, it is a formidable reality in countries like Holland or Italy. The inevitable result is that many writers, consciously or otherwise, have begun to think of their audience as international rather than national.
…translators are becoming less rather than more visible. Few readers will be aware who translates their favourite foreign novelist, even though that person will have a huge influence on the tone and feel of every page.
At one level it is generally agreed that literary prizes are largely a lottery, and international prizes even more so … the larger and more improbable the prize, the more the talk and the more the credit extended to them.
Readers, wherever they are from, want to feel that they are in direct, unmediated contact with greatness. They are not eager to hear about translators. The writer wants to believe his genius is arriving, pristine, unmediated, to his readers all over the world. So the prize is important, while the translator must disappear. The translator must be reduced to an industrial process, or a design choice; he is on the same level as the typeface or the quality of the paper. If a translator himself or herself wins a prize it is because he or she has translated a major author. A brilliant translation of a little-known author impresses no one.
The space given to America is quite disproportionate. American authors, far more than their British, French or German counterparts, need not make any special claims to international attention. No novelty is required. The opposite is true for the writer from Serbia, the Czech Republic or Holland. A writer from these countries must come up with something impressive and unusual in terms of content and style if a global audience is to be reached. Five hundred pages of Franzen-like details about popular mores in Belgrade or Warsaw would not attract a large advance.
The question arises then: what kind of literature is it that reaches an international public, surviving what is now an industrialized translation process squeezed into the briefest possible time and paying little attention to questions of affinity between translator and text (to the point that many larger novels are split between a number of translators)?
Rather than embodying the spirit of a people, this is a literature that tends to the existentialist, speaks of Everyman, not an Irishman, an Englishman or a Frenchman; and existentialism is necessarily a form of internationalism.
We arrive at this paradox. However much you prize your individuality, your autonomy from your national culture, nevertheless you’d better have an interesting national product (ball and chain?) to sell on the international market. Rather than liberating us, the process of internationalizing literature reinforces stereotypes as, faced with the need to be aware of so many countries, we use a rapid system of labelling. And the faster the translator has to work, the more, you can be sure, the final product will be flattened and standardized.
This is an ostensibly Eurocentric analysis, but in many ways one even more relevant to the fate of literary works from ‘distant’ countries such as Thailand pigeonholed for their sea, sand, sun and sex.
At this stage, let’s make a bet: let’s bet that Chart Korbjitti’s Chiens fous (Phan Ma Ba), which deals with sea, sand, sun, sex, shit and sangria, will have much better sales than La Chute de Fak (human hypocrisy, human misery) or Sonne l’heure (changing family and other social values).
This being said, my dear Tim Parks, I have no intention of ever producing translations that ‘will be flattened and standardized’, even though I’m aware of such pressures.
By the way, always the optimist, today I renewed for the next three years my subscription to the TLS – 420 pounds sterling, no less, my lawyer of a daughter’s current monthly salary – and was disgusted to see that they insist on an extra 20 pounds to give me subscriber’s access to their website. Something which should be par for the course, as the London Review of Books, to which I also subscribe, well understands: I recently also renewed my subscription to LRB to the maximum duration they offer (two years) but even a one-year subscription would have given me access to all their website pages.
I haven’t checked yet what the website policy for subscribers is at the New York Review of Books.