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.
Written by Italo Calvino and published in 1972, Invisible Cities is a collection of page-long descriptions of cities, as described by Marco Polo to Kublai Khan. The two men do not have a common language, so we realise that Polo is describing his travels using not only words, but hand gestures and props to make himself understood to his host. The novel, written originally in Italian, is incredibly vivid and explores our imagination. It’s complex, but there’s an enjoyment to be had from just reading it at face value without adding your own interpretation or thinking about it too deeply. Although the cities are described in a clearly exaggerated way, the images are too intense for them to be totally made up…. This is definitely worth reading – it’s totally captivating and although there’s no plot as such, it’s almost impossible to put down. Also, you look kind of intelligent reading it on public transport, which is always nice.