Today’s announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature once again has many Americans scratching their heads. Patrick Modiano? Who is he? This seems to be the reaction almost every time the Nobel Committee selects a non-American (or at least English-speaking) author.
Several years ago, then secretary of the Nobel Committee Horace Engdahl got himself embroiled in controversy when he said that, ‘the US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.’ The statement angered many American intellectuals, for good reason. But he had a point.
If you look at the bestseller lists in major European magazines like France’s Paris Match or Germany’s Der Spiegel, you will notice that they include, and sometimes are almost dominated by, current American books in translation. When was the last time a book in translation made the New York Times Bestseller list? I’m thinking back to Patrick Suskind’s Perfume (1986), translated from German. There has to be a more recent one, but the fact that I can’t recall one speaks volumes.
So when we hear that an author we never heard of has just won the Nobel Prize for Literature, our natural reaction is to think the Nobel Committee is once again out of touch. But perhaps we are out of touch. Webster Groves Public Library doesn’t own any books by Patrick Modiano, though there is at least one available through the MLC. We will correct this oversight as soon as we can.
What about you? Do you have any favorite contemporary authors whose works you read in translation? Are you ‘in touch’ with world literature?