Glum McCrum

February 15, 2009

It would perhaps be more accurate to say that Robert McCrum is cynical and even snide in his essay on current British excitement about literature in translation, published in today’s Observer, but where’s the ponderous rhyme in that? McCrum casts his gaze over the British reading public, points out previous periods of translation fever that were short-lived and superficial, and concludes that Bolaño and his brethren, at present the toasts of the British literary crowd, will soon go the way of other authors before him.

Now, I would be hard-pressed to argue that going the way of Gabriel García Márquez or Günter Grass is such a hardship for a foreign author, but McCrum’s point is of course not that those authors have been forgotten: rather, that our interest (well, I am just going to brazenly extrapolate to the American reading public here, because it doesn’t seem all that different to me in the U.S.) in foreign literature doesn’t extend beyond those few great names that splash down into our consciousness and become acclaimed blockbusters for a moment. After all, German literature? They’ve got Goethe, Hesse, and, yes, Grass — and Mann, when we remember him. All of Latin America produced Borges, García Márquez, maybe Paz or Fuentes . . . and Paulo Coelho. Heh. Lucky us.

Bolaño may well survive the current fever without burning out — or be rescued from rapid oblivion by a movie adaptation 10 years later, the only thing that’s saved Schlink’s Reader (which I thought was a rather mediocre novel at the time anyway) from being utterly forgotten. Still, McCrum seems to argue, translated literature in Britain seems to serve more a collective psychological function than a cultural one: “To paraphrase conductor Adrian Bolt’s summary of the British taste in music, the reading public does not really like foreign fiction, but it does like the noise it makes in its head.”

-ar

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