Nobel committee permanent chair Horace Engdahl said in an interview today that he Nobel committee sees US literature as "too insular." In Particular:
"They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature."
While publishers and editors have rushed to defend the wide scope of US literature and the many generations of immigrant writers who have contributed to it, but so far have made no riposte to the challenge on translation. Three Percent, a US blogger who agrees with Engdahl's assessment, noted back in February that, although there's some conflicting information out there, the statistics on original translations of fiction and poetry from languages other than English in the US are pretty weak, hovering at around 3% of all books published, hence the title of the blog.
The UK doesn't rate much better, and when it comes to the breadth of contemporary Arabic literature, according to a 2007 conference paper on Maghrebi fiction in English (download PDF here),
Salih Altoma notes that of the 322 translations of works of fiction from Arabic into English since the end of the Second World War, nearly two-thirds have been published since 1988... Furthermore, works selected fortranslation from the Arabic are overwhelmingly by Egyptian writers (170 out of the 322 recorded by Altoma).
As Pickford continues, the landscape is changing slowly:
a few dedicated publishers – principally Quartet, Saqi, University of Texas Press, and AUC Press – have an ongoing commitment to building up a collection of Arabic-language literature… a number of the publishers are based in the Arab world itself. This reflects a laudable effort on the part of local publishers, who recognise that if their counterparts in the West do not show an interest, it is up to them to challenge this cultural marginalisation and seek out a Western readership.
Initiatives such as the British Council's New Arabic Books and the PEN Atlas hope to change things further still, so the rate of translation for Maghrebi books is more that one every 2.5 years. Assia Djebar's name on the Nobel odds list from Ladbrokes is a positive sign - and a challenge to explore the region's writers further.