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.
Ideal for a europhile, Manu Chao – half Spanish half French – sings in a melange of languages including Spanish, French, English and various others that I’m not sure are actually real languages. His album Proxima Estacion: Esperanza which was released in 2001 is so catchy and easy to listen to even if you don’t understand half of what he’s actually saying… My favourite songs are Mr Bobby (even though it’s in English), Me Gustas Tu, and Le Rendez Vous
Go and listen