Look at any list of The Best Books Ever Written (subjective I know, but still), and you’ll see that a large number of them were written by foreign authors in foreign languages. English may be the most widely spoken language in the world, but I find it sad that according to some statistics, only 3 percent of all books published in English are translations. Foreign literature gives us an insight into the national psyche of other countries, allows us to better understand the history and gives us a first-hand account of life from a foreigner’s perspective.
Sure, we can read newspaper articles and blogs to find out how other people in other countries live, but there’s nothing quite like reading a French, or Dutch or Japanese novel in translation to get a sense of what it’s like coming from and living there. Reading Murakami’s massively successful Norwegian Wood gave me a much deeper insight into Japanese life than anything else could — and similarly, Amélie Nothomb’s Fear and Trembling offers a view into Japanese office hierarchy from a Belgian’s perspective, obviously not something you’d easily come across otherwise. People tend not to go for novels in translation when choosing something to read in a bookshop or library because of the misconception that it will be “more difficult” to read, or more “challenging” than an ordinary English novel, but this just isn’t true (unless you pick War and Peace). The main benefit of reading foreign literature is, of course, that you look really smart reading on public transport…
Foreign books and movies can be a great way of encouraging young people — especially teenagers — to take up a foreign language. In England, where I live, we are currently experiencing a language crisis: the number of people choosing to study them at university is decreasing every year. This is rather sad — having graduates who can speak one or more languages is an asset to any company, and there are several reasons for the lack of interest. Firstly, the standard of teaching in secondary schools is often not that great. Secondly, and more importantly, the syllabus for 14 to 18 year-olds is honestly rather boring. Each examination board is different, but with some, the topics studied rarely stray from the environment, family and the world of work. This is especially true at GCSE level — the public exams we take at the age of 16. If the course were more interesting — incorporating popular culture, music, film and books — way more students would choose to study languages. Spending time with other European teenagers from Switzerland, Belgium and Spain, it’s actually embarrassing that on the whole, most of them can speak three or four languages. To solve this crisis in England at least, one thing is clear: we should draw more attention to foreign language film and literature, as there is so much for us to learn from them.
Loving Sabotage, written in 1993 by the Belgian writer Amélie Nothomb, is a short novel about a young girl whose family has been posted to Peking. There, she falls in love with her friend Elena, who rejects her, and she ends up learning some life lessons at a very young age. It’s set in the Seventies, and is written from the point of view of a seven-year-old, which makes for very interesting reading. Living in an enclosed expat world, the young girl offers us an insight into her life. What makes it work is that although it’s written in the first person as a seven-year-old, the language is very sophisticated (far more so than your average little kid’s…) and the similes are though-provoking and unusual. The author has succeeded brilliantly in letting us into the mind of the girl (who we in the end find out to be the author herself) whilst at the same time not using a patronising, juvenile style.
It has been described by critics as being “The funniest book I’ve ever read about the cruelty and delusions of childhood”, and speaking as a teenager myself (because clearly, my opinion is worth soo much), I’d have to agree. It’s sad and naïve at times, but at others, what the critics say is true: it’s laugh-out-loud funny – not something you’d necessarily expect, reading the blurb of the book.
The length of Loving Sabotage – 135 pages – makes it ideal to read during school time, because you don’t have to dedicate large chunks of time to getting into the story. The downside to this, however, is when you’re done with it, you want it to be longer… It’s worth bearing in mind when reading that it was originally written in French – something you really don’t notice when you’re in the middle of it, perhaps because the translation is so good.
Here’s something you probably didn’t know: the official Most Beautiful Train Station In Europe is Antwerp’s. Awarded this great accolade for the third year running (congrats) I can speak from experience when I say that it’s not difficult to see why. It’s waaaay too good to be a train station – it looks more like a 5* hotel, with intricately designed railings, staircases and ceilings. It was revamped 3 years ago (it only cost €1.6 billion…), and now features various floors beneath where the trains can pass right underneath, so there’s no need to travel via a different route. The gold clock hanging from the ceiling looks like it would be equally at home hanging in Buckingham Palace…