#78. Read a book in translation from a language and/or culture that you know relatively little about

IDEA #78. Read a book in translation from a language and/or culture that you know relatively little about. You could even try a graphic novel or a comic book.

A good many of the books that children in Western society enjoy these days started out in languages other than those that dominate, and in recent decades publishers seem to be falling all over one another presenting collections of folk tales for children from cultures around the world. This kind of introduction to multiculturalism may inspire a larger world-view, but it order to sustain that view it is necessary to continue to feed the mind with even more words and ideas whose place or origin is unfamiliar.

Fortunately publishers and librarians have seen the need, and so there is a broad choice of works in translation for readers of all ages. That said, two trends in contemporary book publishing may have at least in part the effect of negating their own multicultural benefits.

One is a focus on the “exotic” that can have the effect of representing unfamiliar cultures as so “other” or alien as to be unknowable—or worse, somehow less “sophisticated” or even capable. This can be downright dangerous, as it can support stereotypes that drive wedges between cultures (and present some as “less” than others) rather than underscoring the commonality of the human experience. The point of this exercise is to underscore the richness in the varieties of ways that peoples have responded to the natural and political circumstances of their time and place. Translated and published properly, the literature of an unknown culture can be illuminating in multiple ways. Done badly, the opposite is true: a poor version of The Odyssey can make even the ancient Greeks look silly.

A second trend is the focus on the lurid and the violent, particularly in some of the “graphic novels” from Japan that are increasingly prominent in American bookstores. These extended comic books, called manga in their more popular forms, can be playful, amusing, and even instructive (for one thing, many editions are direct translations, and the panels and pages read from right to left, a cross-cultural delight in iteslf). Some series, however, focus on conflict and antisocial behavior that may not only give the wrong impression to younger readers. As in all cases where a youngster is venturing into cultural unknowns, parental guidance would be in order here.

If, however, the reader is simply discovering the joys of literature in translation—many mystery series, for example, have come into English from other languages—let the enjoyment and the pleasurable immersion into other ways take their course.

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