The Creeping Scourge of Multiculturalism

February 7, 2009

A less cheery take on the relationship between multiculturalism and translation than our previous post can be found in Aviya Kushner’s essay in The Wilson Quarterly, “McCulture.” With Barack Obama as an icon of a new era, Kushner claims, “a new kind of translator is moving to the forefront of American culture. It is now cool to be ­half.” Unfortunately, she continues, American readers tend to prefer getting mediated contact with the unknown through multilingual and multicultural writers to the perhaps more arduous task of immersing themselves in a truly foreign [translated] text. My brain kept wanting to construct a metaphor using Hawaiian pizza, so I’m glad Kushner provides her own food analogy:

And so we read ethnic literature the way we down an ethnic meal. We can get a burrito almost anywhere, but it’s often mildly spiced, adjusted just for us, and wrapped for those in a rush. So we’re eating a translated burrito, and we’re reading a world prepared especially for us. But we don’t believe anything is missing. After all, we eat “ethnic” food, and ­often.

I think the problem may be more this perception that ethnic=foreign, that an American text tinged with a hint of the exotic is an interaction with another culture, this conviction that there’s no need to look outside our own borders because we have it all, basically, right here — a Little Italy, a Chinatown, a Little Pakistan . . . — than that American readers find it too exhausting or unsettling to immerse themselves in foreign cultures and would rather others do it for them. There may even be a kind of unconscious imperialism — we find ourselves more persuaded by voices that are more similar to our own, trust them to be more objective, can relate to them better. (Even Jesus, it turns out, spoke English.) It is true that we are more likely to lap up accounts of Rory Stewart, educated white Scotsman, walking across Afghanistan, or read fictional accounts of the country written by a man who left when he was 15, than seek out a contemporary Afghani perspective. There is not anything inherently wrong with those sorts of portrayals, but they certainly are not complete.

Still, I wonder if it is precisely the contact of cultures that interests Americans most, the sometimes awkward and sometimes fruitful exchange between them, rather than foreign cultures themselves. With the countless memoirs of expat Brits and Yanks purchasing crumbling country villas in Europe that were coming out 10-15 years ago, certainly part of the appeal was the dream of living a life of ease that tasted like freshly gathered porcinis, but some of it was also the stories of negotiating byzantine land-title processes, trying to get the local carpenters to show up, of making contact with characters eccentric not just in their individual characteristics but also in their entire cultural makeup. But I like Kushner’s idea that the work of translators provides an equivalent cultural exchange — sometimes awkward and sometimes fruitful — in which two languages, two histories, two belief systems come into contact, even if we aren’t trained to notice the effects of that contact in the translated text. “A good translator,” she says, “must create and inhabit a place that does not fully exist—a land between languages,” just as the Provence of Peter Mayle, or Frances Mayes’s Tuscany, are neither France/Italy nor England/the U.S.

I am frustrated by what feels like an endless feedback system in which publishers are convinced Americans are at best indifferent to and most likely afraid of translated texts, and adjust their offerings accordingly, thus leaving American readers deeper and deeper mired in their own insularity. If evidence of translationness — such as a translator’s name prominently displayed on the cover — really does make potential readers run away screaming, I wonder how much that is due to real wariness (and weariness!) of a foreign culture and how much to a widespread, if not entirely conscious, idea of a translation as inevitably doing some kind of violence to a foreign text. (If I come across another article entitled “Lost in Translation” or a cutesy pun on that tired phrase, I may do some violence of my own.)  Perhaps there is more awareness of the awkward than of the fruitful outcomes of translation.

Link via (as usual) Three Percent, who also have an interesting post on the essay.



3 Responses to “The Creeping Scourge of Multiculturalism”

  1. […] I just ran across a perfect example of that annoying custom I referred to yesterday of avoiding translations not because of any discomfort or laziness when confronting the unknown but […]

  2. […] already wrote an articulate response to the Aviya Kushner article, “McCulture,” that I wrote about a few days ago. He or she (I can’t tell behind the Zorro mask!) takes irate issue with […]

  3. […] post names a few authors to look out for in the post-Gabo era. Of course, in keeping with the hubbub over Aviya Kushner’s “McCulture” piece a couple of months ago, however, more and […]

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