Most Favored Nations

Parr Globe.jpg

Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Great Britain, 1975

Shortly before his death in 1980, the great anthropologist Gregory Bateson suggested that social engineering was like trying to reverse a truck with five or six trailers attached to it through a complex maze; you might get somewhere, but where and with what collateral damage would never be clear. So it’s hardly a surprise that the decision in many countries around Europe to insist on English as a second language—to facilitate trade of course and to promote a global scientific community—has had some unexpected effects, not least on literature.

In Milan, where I live, the city polytechnic recently announced that some post-graduate courses are soon to be taught exclusively in English. But Italy is hardly in the forefront. About 56 percent of Europeans speak a second language, and for 38 percent of them that language is English. In Scandinavia and the Netherlands, where it’s fairly common to find university courses taught in English, the figure is more like 90 percent. Even where the percentage is smaller we are nevertheless talking about the most educated part of the community, those more likely to be reading novels, particularly literary novels.

Inevitably, as the number of people speaking English increases, so do the sales of novels in English. But not enormously. The surprise is that increased knowledge of English has also brought a much more marked increase in sales of literature written in English but read in translation in the local language. When you learn a language you don’t just pick up a means of communication, you buy into a culture, you get interested.

Statistics provided by Dutch Fund for Literature show that while the number of translations coming from other languages has been static, or risen only slowly, as English is taught more and more widely in schools and universities through the seventies and eighties there has been a huge leap in translations from English. In 1946 only 5 percent of Holland’s book production was made up of translations; by 2005 it had reached 35 percent and in the area of prose fiction the share had grown to 71 percent. Of those translations, 75 percent now come from English. What figures I have managed to find for Germany and Italy do not differ a great deal.

At Università IULM in Milan, where I teach, we have a group research project on the effects of globalization on literature. Last year, as part of this project, I went to Holland, where publishers and readers have always been generous to me, and over a month spent a number of afternoons in a bookshop in the center of Amsterdam talking to customers about their reading choices. All in all I managed forty, fifteen-minute interviews with “ordinary” readers aged between twenty and sixty and evenly distributed between men and women; all but one older interviewee told me they read mainly foreign novels.

When I asked people to list titles they had recently read, they seemed surprised themselves how prevalently English and American, rather than simply foreign, these novels were. A linguist from Amsterdam University, for example, went away and jotted down the names of all the novelists on his shelves: fifty-eight Anglophone authors (many were Booker and Pulitzer winners), nineteen from eight other countries and twenty Dutch. Until he wrote down this list, he remarked, he had not been aware how far his reading was driven by publicity and availability. Indeed, no one spoke of any method behind his or her choice of novels (as opposed to non-fiction, where people declared very specific and usually local interests).

“I read foreign novels because they’re better,” was a remark I began to expect (surprisingly, a senior member of the Dutch Fund for Literature also said this to me). I asked readers if that could really be the case; why would foreign books be “better” across the board, in what way? As the responses mounted up, a pattern emerged: these people had learned excellent English and with it an interest in Anglo-Saxon culture in their school years. They had come to use their novel-reading (but not other kinds of reading) to reinforce this alternative identity, a sort of parallel or second life that complemented the Dutch reality they lived in and afforded them a certain self esteem as initiates in a wider world.

Apart from the immediate repercussions on the book market, where there is now fierce competition between English and Dutch editions of English language novels, the phenomenon suggests a few things about reading and the modern psyche. There appears to be a tension, or perhaps necessary balance, between evasion and realism in fiction, between a desire to read seriously about real things—to feel I am not wasting my time, but engaging intelligently with the world—and simultaneously a desire to escape the confines of one’s immediate community, move into the territory of the imagination, and perhaps fantasize about far away places.


For Europeans, one way to satisfy both desires is to read novels translated from English, talking about a culture far away, but one that can be thought of as relevant to readers because of the dominance of Anglo Saxon and specifically American culture worldwide, and because they themselves have acquired English as a second language; in most translations there will usually be some memory or trace of the original language, which, for those who are familiar with it, will reinforce their sense of knowing that other world. This may be simply the names of people or places, references to customs or a cultural setting, or, inevitably, some syntactical or lexical habit, that appears more often in, say, translations from English than in normal local language use (the frequency of the present progressive is a typical marker).

The Dutch readers I interviewed told me they only really noticed that a text was translated, rather than originally written in Dutch, when the translation had been made from a language they knew. Then they could occasionally hear the English or French or German behind the Dutch. But rather than feeling persuaded as a result to give up on translations and tackle their novels in the original language, they seemed to take pleasure in criticizing the translator for having allowed this to happen: a number of interviewees were convinced they could do better themselves, which of course is an encouraging thing to think. Again, the reading experience reinforces self regard.

Naturally, the more one reads books by English and American authors, and watches movies and soaps made in America and costume dramas made in England, and interminable news stories about American primaries and presidential elections, in which Europeans now feel they are somehow participating, the more full and complex this second life becomes and the more pleasure there is in reinforcing it with yet another English or American novel.

Four of my interviewees, however, all in their early twenties, added another reason for choosing translations of English novels over Dutch, one that again had nothing to do with the quality of the books. “You have to read things that you can talk about when you travel,” one young woman explained. “Nobody outside Holland knows Dutch novels. It’s good to know the big book of the moment, Franzen, Rushdie, what everybody’s talking about.” It was important to her, she said, when reading a novel, to think that it was being read by people like herself worldwide; it made her feel part of an international community. At moments of travel or contact with foreigners the second life becomes real.

Naturally, authors writing in English benefit enormously from this, yet are usually complacently unaware of their good fortune. Sitting on a panel of British writers at a conference in Berlin last year I was embarrassed when one of my colleagues, a man known for his fierce left-wing satires of presumptuous public figures, said that the British could feel proud of producing a literature of such quality that all the world wished to read it. Well, it is true that Britain has a strong tradition in novel writing, but these days the dice are so heavily loaded in favor of English-language novels that the question of quality is almost a moot point. In any power game, it seems, the dominant party is the least likely to be aware of what is going on.

These reflections were confirmed last week when I was among a group of British authors invited to give talks and readings at a charming literary festival—Le Comédie du Livre—in Montpellier. Aside from our formal events, we were asked to sit for a couple of hours a day in open-air bookstalls signing our novels for French readers. It was another opportunity to talk to people about their reading choices.

Now, the French don’t speak English as well as the Dutch or Germans, but again, when questioned, almost all of those buying English fiction in French translation said they spoke some English and in general preferred reading foreign/English novels to French ones. It’s uncanny. And again when I discussed this with my fellow British authors, the idea that their work was being bought for reasons other than content, reputation, and quality came as a surprise and possibly an insult; their second languages are rarely strong and their reading is not guided by identification with another culture.

I have written previously about another major consequence of this huge increase in the sale of translated novels. Abandoned by local readers less interested in novels set in their home culture, some European writers, consciously or otherwise, seem to be shifting their subject matter and style to aim at an international readership.


So, to return to my opening point about unforeseen consequences, partly thanks to the huge increase in English teaching, which is itself in line with the pressures towards globalization, we have a situation
where literary fiction is coming to serve a different purpose and to be experienced differently in the different national communities. The politically-engaged social novel many European writers (Moravia, Calvino, Sartre, Camus, Böll) were celebrated for writing up to about the 1970s continues in the Anglo-Saxon world, but is fast disappearing in many European countries for the simple reason that people are reading and now perhaps writing rather less about their own societies, and hence novels are less likely to take on national issues. Globalization, it seems, does not homogenize across the board; it may push literature to develop in one way on one side of the Atlantic—or rather the language divide—and in quite a different way on the other.

New York Review + Paris Review covers

Save $168 on an inspired pairing!

Get both The New York Review and The Paris Review at one low price.

Already a subscriber? Sign in