Every person has something that they can’t resist. It catches your eye across a crowded room. You find yourself pulling the nearest person you know along to point it out. Even if you don’t touch it or intend to buy it, you comment on it. For some it’s food, or music, or shoes. For me, it’s books.
When I travel, it’s become a habit to spend some quality time in bookstores. In England, there are a number of quirky antique bookstores tucked into old rows of shops that offer mazes of books to delve into, sometimes inside churches or other repurposed historical buildings. Some tomes are valuable and kept behind glass, but most are jumbled together in vague categories and forgotten. You go for the dust, the smell of old binding, the annotations in the cover pages. Finding treasures hidden alongside cheap guidebooks and dog-eared required reading is an unexpected pleasure.
In Japan, bookstores are explosions of color. Candy stores of illustrations, flowing text, and kanji, they are a spectacle. The first time I was there, I wandered into a Book-Off, a dangerous place where secondhand books are sold for hazardously low prices, like a moth drawn to a flame. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t read any of the books. I wanted to bring them all home with me. The second time I visited Japan, I walked through bookstores and Book-Offs like an elementary school kid, thrilled to read some of the picture books and jazzed to be able to recognize some of the complicated characters on the spines. I found a favorite series on the shelf and perused a few pages like the dozens of students in the stacks doing the same thing on the way home from school. The solidarity of joining those silent readers was an unexpected pleasure, too.
I wasn’t so restrained the second time. Several of those beautiful books came home with me. Now, my bookshelf is a riot of color, genre, nationality, and language. I couldn’t be happier with it. But as I look at the titles there, I think of an article that I encountered a few months back, Daniel Hahn’s “We’ve Stopped Translating Children’s Books Into English. Where Will We Get the Next Tintin?” The title caught my eye because I grew up reading Tintin books, a series of Belgian comics about a boy reporter. Several of them are on my shelf. I don’t remember how they came into my life, only the fond memory of getting to choose one at the bookstore as a reward for good grades. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized that these books were not like other books that I read, that they had been translated. I had never thought of it before. In high school, I discovered Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy and was surprised to find that it had originally been written in German. But by then, there were many things that I’d read that I hadn’t considered what language they came from. The Count of Monte Christo by Alexandre Dumas, Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm fairy tales, American Indian myths, Arabian Nights, Asterix, Pippi Longstocking, and many others.
In his article, Hahn expresses a disappointment in current publishing trends that seem biased against works from other languages. Taking a tally at a major London bookstore, he found 29 translated children’s books. Of those, only six were living authors. He asks, “Six point seven billion people in the world whose first language isn’t English, and none of them are writing good children’s books? Nobody but us—however you choose to define that problematic ‘us’—has a story worth telling?” Hahn admits his bias—he is a translator—but I believe he has a point. Currently, there is an emphasis in the children’s publishing industry on diversity, including voices that may have been underrepresented or unheard before. Interestingly, however, there doesn’t seem to be an overt correlating movement to publish more translated literature, an obvious source of diversity.
In more recent years, my own reading has tended towards translated Japanese works in the form of short stories, graphic novels, poetry, and light novels. As a student of the language for several years, I’m slowly breaking into reading some of these texts in their original form, a process that is both a frustration and a pleasure. As I’ve been plunging into this new kind of reading, I often wish I had a greater capacity for languages, so that I could read every book in its first language. I wish I could read Dumas, Cyrano de Bergerac, and Tintin in French. I wish I could read fairy tales in German and Russian. I wish I could read Chinese epics in Mandarin. But time and ability is never in the supply we’d like it to be, so I’m ever so grateful for translated literature. As I expand my reading in contemporary Japanese literature, I can’t help but think what other wonderful stories are being published right now in Dutch, Hindi, Malay, and other languages. I hope as publishing continues to work towards a wide variety of styles and voices, we might start to see a greater influx of literature from abroad. I know that translated literature has been a great joy for me, as well as a large influence on my life as a reader and a writer. I hope that young readers will have the chance to truly explore the world through stories from every country and find unexpected pleasures in books from far away places.
2 thoughts on “Seeing the World Through Stories”
Good point. There must be so much wonderful literature out there that we are missing out on simply because they happen to be in a language we don’t understand. It is wonderful that you are getting your toes wet with Japanese works. Who knows? Someday you might graduate to a third language 😉
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Learning other languages can be difficult, but it’s such fun, and so interesting, too! I wish I had more time in the day to study more.
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