“You would think differently if this land was your land and if these people were your people.”
– Abulaziz al Mahmoud, translated from Arabic by Amira Nowaira
Although the Library’s “Novel Destinations” summer reading game for adults just ended, it reminded me of a book I recently found: The World Between Two Covers by Ann Morgan.
On an impulse prompted by a comment on her blog, Morgan decided to take a year-long international journey by reading a book from each of 196 nations. She first chronicled this project in a blog (A Year of Reading the World), which is still online, but the book allows her more space to consider the geopolitical & philosophical issues involved in what seemed at first like a simple idea.
Some of the most obvious: what qualifies as a “nation” and what is a “national literature”? Must it be written by a person born there? Does it have to be written in that country, or can it be written in exile? Can it be about another place?
The book covers these questions, and more. Morgan discusses how fiction can affect our attitudes and expectations even more than non-fiction, due to its deeper appeal to empathy. She talks about the dilemma of international authors who need to write “Western-approved” themes for their work to be chosen for translation abroad, let alone read and/or critically praised. One chapter discusses the complications of reading literature in translation that depends on the often-overlooked work of a translator to convey (as much as possible) the nuances of another language and culture.
And, of course, she talks about the books she read. Thanks to her account I’ve already checked out Abdourahman Waberi’s fascinating alternate history In the United States of Africa, and look forward to reading The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad.
Sadly, the majority of the world is still off-limits to English-only readers. Estimates vary, but only 3 to 4 percent of books released in North America each year are translations. Seeking out English-language works from every corner of the globe was difficult; at one point Morgan had to ask Portuguese-speaking readers of her blog to collaborate on the translation of a short story collection in order to have anything to read from the country of Sao Tome and Principe.
If you’re interested in reading outside your borders, here are some ways to expand your horizons:
- See the complete list of books Morgan read (by nation);
- Consult the Bloomsbury good reading guide: world fiction;
- Check out the excellent Three Percent blog, which also spotlights fiction in translation, maintained by the Literary Translation Studies program at the University of Rochester.
Enjoy your travels,