Under The Influence

This has already been linked to everywhere, but I thought I’d mention the NY Times‘ weekend piece in which they ask nine writers under the age of 40 about their biggest literary influences. Eight of them picked one or two other writers, but the answer that struck me most was Jonathan Safran Foer’s:

I can’t read most of my literary heroes — Ovid, Kafka, Rilke, Schulz, Grass, Garcia-Marquez, Amichai — in their original languages. And the books I’ve been most inspired by in the past year — ”Garden, Ashes,” by Danilo Kis; ”The Noodle Maker,” by Ma Jian; ”Blindness,” by Jose Saramago; ”Sayonara, Gangsters,” by Genichiro Takahashi; ”My Name Is Red,” by Orhan Pamuk — were written in Serbo-Croatian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese and Turkish, respectively. Maybe it’s a coincidence. I’m not aware of connecting with these books because of their foreignness. Just the opposite. I love them for their ability finally to describe the personal and familiar. It just so happens that those descriptions were made with words I can’t understand.

Shamefully, fewer than 3 percent of literary books published each year in the United States are translated from foreign languages, compared with vastly higher percentages (25-45 percent) in virtually every other country. And much of our 3 percent consists of retranslations of classics, so the real number for new foreign voices is quite a bit lower. We focus virtually all of our political and military attention on the Middle East, but how many of us could claim to have read a single work of Arabic literature in translation? For a citizen, it’s scary to contemplate a future in which relations with those we need to relate to are diplomatic, and not humane. It’s with art, after all, that a culture best expresses its humanity.

And as a writer, I know that without being a participant in the conversation of cultures — being a talker, but not a listener — I will be a lesser writer. Like science, art depends on the experiments of others. The great advances are made not by individuals so much as by environments. (It’s no coincidence that innovations tend to come in bundles.) In this way, it’s a terrible moment to be an American writer.

Or an American reader. Sometimes I think of the books I’ll never read that would have changed my life. (There should be a word for that missed connection. Maybe another language has such a word. . . .) And who doesn’t want to have more heroes? Who doesn’t want to be as inspired as possible?

I guess it struck home because I’m one of those annoying people who can’t give you a straight answer when you ask “What’s your favorite book?” or “Who’s your favorite author?” because I know I haven’t read nearly enough to really provide a proper answer.

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