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Should all literature be in English? Should all literature be in English?
by Joseph Gatt
2020-10-23 09:00:45
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You're going to find a lot of good fiction works that are not in English. But when it comes to non-fiction, you're going to have a lot of trouble finding anything worth reading that is not in English, especially anything written in the 21st century.

For fiction works, choosing a language is not always a no-brainer. Writers in Latin America are probably going to write in Spanish or Portuguese. Writers in Turkey are probably going to choose Turkish. Europeans are going to use their local language. The Israelis are probably going to write in Hebrew. East Asians are going to write in their native language.

lit01_400But Africans and Middle Easterners are more likely to write in French or English, or perhaps Portuguese if they're from Angola, Cabo Verde, Sao Tome, the Seychelles or Mozambique. Indian writers are probably going to write their fiction in English, and so are Pakistanis and writers from Bangladesh.

So why this need to write fiction in the colonial language? Many reasons. First off, writers tend to find it easier to write in the colonial language where they are sure to find readers, as the literary scene tends to be tepid in their local country. Writers are also going to adopt a more balanced grasp of their topic, as writing in their native language can lead to both self-censorship and descriptions of some harsh realities that would offend local readers.

Plus, fiction writers tend to choose the colonial language because their readers will probably mainly be fellow nationals who are immigrants in the former “metropolis”. Indian fiction will probably be read by Indian immigrants in London or New York City, and the odds of being read by Indians in New Delhi or Mumbai are slim.

Not that there is no fiction in Hindi or Gujarati. And not that Indians don't read Indian fiction in Delhi or Madras. But Indians in Bangalore or more likely to download the book online, or to pass it around in PDF format, or to print it out from the PDF file than to purchase the book at the local book store or borrow it from the library.

But there's something I like to call the “global fiction reading crisis.” Not that there ever was a golden age of fiction. Fiction works have their readers and their fans, but most fiction fans now read books in electronic format, either one e-book readers, on tablets, or on PCs, or even on smartphones.

Second of all, there's a bit of a crisis when it comes to advertising fiction. You have so many writers advertising their works that it's hard to tell a good work of fiction from a bad one. Traditionally, a good work of fiction is one that is plausible, well researched, that is a “window into reality” when “bad” works of fiction tend to either be implausible, have trouble catching the reader, or are poorly structured and constructed.

Furthermore, the new electronic press means that people tend to look at sensational articles and tend to skip the “book reviews” section, and only major awards advertise books.

In universities, textbooks are slowly replacing fiction and non-fiction works, and most books are confined to the “recommended readings” section when “mandatory readings” tend to be textbook chapters.

In high schools and middle schools, with the installation of computers and projectors in classrooms, “visual learning” is slowly replacing textbooks and books, meaning students are more likely to be assigned to consult a website or a YouTube video than to actually read a book or textbook passage.

What about non-fiction? Why is it almost always in English? And why are there more chances that you find a good book about Paraguay in English than in Spanish or Guarani?

First off, all the major data focal points are located in the United States. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, WordPress, Blogger, basically all the data gathering points are located in the United States. For social sciences, that is.

Second of all, there's more of a “data sharing” culture in the United States than there would be in any other nation.

Third of all, in the United States, foreign students pay tuition fees and we care about that, but we also try to use foreign students for data gathering purposes, which is not something other countries really do. If you study in China for example, your Chinese professor probably won't even care what country you come from, and chances are won't know the name of your native language.

Fourth of all most good non-fiction works in foreign languages are translated into English. This means that if you want to expand knowledge in a field, chances are a lot of your sources will be available in English.

Another very important point. In most of the countries I visited, there's a culture of rejecting “oral history” or “oral testimony” or “participant observation” and focusing exclusively on written documentation to produce works of non-fiction, be they Ph.D. dissertations or actual non-fiction books.

That is, when I was working on research projects with the French, the Germans, the Koreans, the Japanese or the Russians, there was a tendency to say something like “Yossi, don't interview those guys. They will think you are investigating them and that will make them very angry.” When I was done interviewing those guys, except for a couple of annoying girls who overreacted, the hundreds of people I interviewed actually thanked me!

Finally, a work of non-fiction usually requires years of constant research. Not days, not months, but years.

In most countries, for cultural reasons, for financial reasons, for motivational reasons, researchers tend to give up rather quickly and abandon their research projects after a month or two, or publish very shallow research in what should have been in-depth work.

That is in the US research tends to be considered a lifelong pursuit when in many countries researchers tend to be exhausted after a book or two. Another factor is that Americans tend to be tolerant of different points of view and tend to rate works of non-fiction rather generously, when in many countries, works of non-fiction tend to be rated very, very harshly.

There's also the fact that in social science for example a lot of researchers are going to focus on the upper-middle class or upper-class and introduce those people as “the people.” How many books for example will claim that the Chinese and Koreans spend a lot of money on education and tutoring? The rich guys, yea. The blue collar workers, not so much. Blue collar kids used to hang out with me after school, and we would eat snacks, drink juice, and I would joke with them about them future soccer stars. Those kids weren't getting tutored or going to cram schools, even when their college entrance exam was nearing.

So most of the data is in English, meaning that a lot of non-fiction work is going to be in English. This tends to penalize those researchers whose first language isn't English.

Those non-fiction writers who don't write in English tend to write books about history, or tell-all books about corruption, the political class, smearing politicians and businessmen, or retelling an event that's good for the history books. In-depth social science or hard-science books are incredibly hard to find in languages other than English.

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