Last week’s posts were about the continued lack of race and gender diversity in the literary canon (Part I here and Part II here). Some noticed I left out a factor that is usually central to this blog: language. Don’t worry, I figured language could constitute an entire post of its own – so here you have it!
I was once at an AP English training in which the participants questioned the preponderance of British and American authors on the exam. The AP official replied that “an English exam necessitates texts originally written in English.”
For the moment, we will ignore that fact that this reply doesn’t address the issue, as there are tons of brilliant authors who write in English but are from countries outside the US/UK (Chinua Achebe, Arundhati Roy, etc.) because this perspective brings up an even larger question: Is the idea that we should predominantly read, teach, and value texts that were originally written in English a useful perspective for the 21st century?
(Now, of course, it would be fabulous if everyone could read in multiple languages, but as many can’t (e.g. myself), I’m mainly talking about works translating literature from other languages into English.)
In a globalized world, the argument that English class “necessitates texts originally written in English” is horrendously outdated. Literature is about broadening our view on the human experience, and you can’t achieve that by automatically excluding the 85% of the world that doesn’t write in English.
In fact, perhaps “English” is an outdated name for the course in which students explores literacy, language, and the literary experience in the first place. Of course, we still need English language courses to teach the basics of reading, writing, and navigating the grammar of this crazy ol’ language of ours. However, most higher level “English” courses use texts as a medium to explore higher-level literary skills – criticism, analysis, engaging with multiple sources – that have little to do with whether the text was originally written in English or not.
Some are right to point out that texts lose some of their authenticity when translated – they definitely do – but that’s not a reason to avoid using them in class. In fact, it’s a strong reason TO teach translated works: What a mind-blowing lesson for students to learn that some words, phrases, or concepts simply don’t exist in English and vice versa. Nab a text with some footnotes from the translator and show students – particularly those who are monolingual – that some things really are “lost in translation.” After such lessons, students can apply this formative lessons to everything from literature, to religious texts, to a speech at the United Nations. Either way, they will never look at language the same way.
There’s nothing impossible about this; speakers of other languages around the world already do it: Think of how many people around the world know and have read Shakespeare, George Orwell, or J.K. Rowling in their own languages. It’s not that these works are somehow superior to all works in other languages or their themes somehow more universal. Every nation has its Shakespeare – a rich literary tradition of its own – and we miss out on a wealth of literary and human experiences through the de facto censorship of English-Only literature.