Monday, April 13, 2009


Aviya Kushner has an interesting piece in the Winter 2009 issue of the Wilson Quarterly titled "McCulture". You might think you know what she's referring to -- the spread of a Disneyfied and Kentucky Fried version of America abroad -- but you'd be wrong.

Kushner is, instead, writing about the way America brings the world into the United States through literature. In particular, she's exploring the role of translation and bilingual writers in the American publishing industry -- and as interpreters of the world for Americans. There are, Kushner points out, very few translations published in the United States each year.

It's not that Americans aren't interested in the world at all. It's just that we seem to want someone else to do the ­heavy ­lifting required to make a cultural connection. As the ­Peruvian-­born writ­er Daniel Alarcón ob­serves, Americans would rather read stories by an American about Peru than a Peruvian writer translated into English. "There's a certain curiosity about the world that's not matched by a willingness to do the work," Alarcón said in a phone interview from his home in Oakland, California. "So what happens is that writers of foreign extraction end up writing about the world for Americans."
Translation is hard work. And expensive work. Work which requires an audience to pick up the tab. An audience that seems to be a little wary of... well... the "real" thing?
It is not that Americans lack curiosity of any ­kind—­but that we seem to lack the right kind. Europe is overrun with young American tourists. Unfortunately, these college students tend to pack a dozen countries into a month or less. They often tote guides such as Let's Go, which highlight the greatest hits and cheapest places and are written by, you guessed it, other American college students. That's how we seem to read international literature as well. Let's go, we might say, but let's go easy. And ­cheap.
So what do you think? Are Americans, on the whole, less than fully curious? Do Americans need their cultural food pre-chewed? Why might this be? And why might Europe -- and the rest of the world, perhaps -- have the "right kind" of curiosity about the world? Or do they?

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