American readers are not likely to discover today’s Borges, Neruda, or Kafka until long after they are dead (if ever). I wrote about why for Pacific Standard:
When Alice Munro, a Canadian, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, you could almost hear the howl of relief from America’s readers: finally, a winner whose name I know! And, perhaps, whose books I’ve even read!
American authors, journalists, and readers have been criticized for being “too isolated, too insular ” about literature published outside our own borders, as a member of the Nobel committee once put it. Americans “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” When the internationally celebrated author Herta Müller won the Nobel in 2009, Europeans poked fun at the bafflement of Americans with headlines like: “Amerikaanse Media: ‘Müller, Who the f*** Is Müller?’”
Is it true? Are American readers woefully out of touch with international literature? Is our bookish insularity limiting our imaginative lives and suffocating our understanding of the world, while inflating our own sense of self-importance?
Well, yes. But there’s more to the story than that.
A meager three percent of all books published in America each year are translated from another language. The majority of that is computer manuals, instructions, and other technical material. An even smaller percentage accounts for reprints or new translations of classics—this is where War & Peace and Madame Bovary come in.
That means that contemporary global literature—fiction and poetry written by living authors—is a vanishingly tiny portion of that three percent. …
Things are worse for female authors: only a quarter of this already microscopic number of contemporary literary translations is of works by women. No female authors have ever won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and four out of 22 have won the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. For all the seeming diversity of books available to American readers, the scope is actually breathtakingly narrow.