On American Language and Culture
People in this country understand that we’re a nation made up of foreigners; that’s our identity. And those of us who have chosen to live in New York City are in some sense all voting for the foreign. This is a city of foreigners, an international city. I sometimes think, when I’m feeling particularly cranky about the policies of my country or its government, “Well, at least I live in New York City,” which is a big ship anchored off the coast of the United States of America. It’s a world city, connected with the United States but not identical to it. And what makes it different is that it’s full of foreigners. But there’s an eternal dialectic here. We know we’re all foreigners and sometimes we’re proud of our foreignness, but at other times we see the foreign as something to be vanquished: Foreign is not us—and our judgment is the privileged one.
Some years ago, I was in Stockholm and was offered a tour of the precincts of the Swedish Academy. I protested to my publisher that I really didn’t feel like having this tour but was told that it would be rude to refuse it, that it was an honor to be shown the room where the deliberations were held and the room where the Swedish king bestowed the Nobel Prize for Literature. And so I did indeed have the tour and it was just as suffocating as I’d imagined, but I managed to be polite. At the end, the secretary of the Swedish Academy said, “I’m going to ask you now the question that I ask every well-known foreign author. If you could nominate one author who has not yet received the Nobel Prize, who would be your choice?” And I said, without a second’s pause, “Borges, of course.” And he said, “Oh, isn’t it odd how many of you foreigners like Borges?” I thought, Well, we “foreigners” are the rest of the world! And who are you? You’re Swedes! You’re ten million people and we’re all the rest! This dialectic between us and them—our sense of complacency about the rightness of our judgment—cuts across every sphere of cultural activity.
This dialectic is obviously relevant to the question of why there are so few translations now into English. One cannot ever underestimate the ascendancy of English as a world language, as the world language, but the consequences of this fact have yet to be fully absorbed by us. In India, for instance, there are sixteen official languages, but the language that people might have in common is the language of the conqueror, the colonial language. It is this language—the language spoken by the richest and most powerful nation that has ever existed in human history—into which large infusions of foreign literature are simply not being allowed to enter. I don’t think that you can separate the lack of interest in foreign translations from the hegemony of English. That is a point everybody makes; I just continue to brood over it and see it as more and more powerful.
I want to introduce one further idea. It’s not just the hegemony of English but something very particular about American culture: a distinctive American tradition that wants to break with the past, to be innovative, to not be influenced, to not be indebted to anyone. Read Emerson—and I say this as someone who adores Emerson and thinks he is one of the great minds of the nineteenth century—and you will see, in a very exalted way, the essential cultural elements, the ideological ingredients of an attitude that makes Americans extremely disrespectful of the foreign, which is identified with the past and the old. Read D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. You will see the enormous cultural war at the center of nineteenth-century American literature: fighting with Europe, fighting with the past, fighting with being influenced, fighting bookishness.
A vigorous anti-literary and anti-intellectual standard is at the center of American culture; Americans are constantly quarreling with the notion of the best, the masterpiece, the work that you ought to read. This attitude has gotten new reinforcement from various political factions, both on the right and on the left. American moralism is often at war with the idea of excellence. If we’re going to talk about the politics of translation, and what makes for the fact that someone can say Americans yawn at translations, we have to look at American resistance to the idea of achievement and of quality, the idea of standards in literature.