I want to start a new conversation, today; one that may take weeks or months to do justice.
As writers we tend to focus rather tightly on a particular genre, or type of work. We do this for multiple reasons, but primarily we choose to write what we like to read. This is especially so, I think, in the area of fiction.
Without doubt there are writers who read everything they can get their hands on. At breakfast they will read the label on a cereal box, or milk carton; while driving they will pay attention to billboards, not so much for the advertisement, but for the sake of keeping their “reading engines” from going into idle.
Even still, we tend to read within a fairly restricted selection.
Finding writers whose primary language is not English, whose output had to be translated, or even better, reading their works in the original language, can be a true eye-opener.
I have often claimed, and have taken endless flak for it, that our vocabularies determine our ability to think. That is to say, the greater the vocabulary, the greater the ability to form concepts. I believe this is true of reading, writing, and understanding as well. The greater the number of concepts we can assimilate, the greater our ability to think and reason.
Look to your own library.
Have you read Borges? Allende? What about Gérard de Villiers, Kyotaro Nishimura, Stieg Larsson?
Do I think you need to learn a new language to fully appreciate literature from a different culture? Well, yes. As that is not always practical, however, reading authorized translations is a good start.
When I lived in Thailand, I was a part of a special Civic Action project in which I would travel up and down the rivers and canals in Thailand on a barge with a Thai crew. Among other things we did, we would set up a temporary medical facility at each village we visited.
As much as I love the Thai people, one cultural norm that I could never get used to (note my clear prejudice) was that the young, no matter how they otherwise respected the old, would cut in line for anything that was available.
In frustration, on day, I asked an old man why he refused to get in line for medical attention. “Kao mai tung”, he said. It took me awhile to work out the meaning. “Go not arrive”, in essence, was what he was saying. In other words, it was useless to get in line. He would never reach the front, and the medical help.
Each language has a magical font of ideas, some of which cannot be translated directly into English. German, for instance, is filled with concepts that are made from the linking of many other words and concepts. Not understanding the language, not seeing the culture, you can get only the most rudimentary understanding of what is being said.
If I ruled the world, everyone would speak at least two languages other than the one learned from birth. This, by the way, would catch us up with most of the rest of the world which is bilingual, often multi-lingual.
Learning other languages in order to widen your literary reach would be ideal, but finding the time, and getting past the belief you cannot learn another language gets in the way. The next best thing is to read good translations, and do your best to immerse yourself into other cultures.
Isn’t it time we all did what we could to spread ourselves out a bit?