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Would you read a book, knowing the original was written in a foreign language?

Updated on December 1, 2009

Foreign literature

Today I answered a question on the Books Forum here on Hubpages:

“Which book have you read more than once?”

Since I grew up in a book loving family consisting of my mum who has always been a keen reader during her lifetime, my dad who must be one of the largest bookworms I know and myself, a little girl that managed to read all the prize books she was awarded with after she had completed the 1st grade in one evening, this was a difficult choice to make.

Are you curious about my answer?

Here are my all time favourites:

Pnin by Nabokov
Turkish Delight by Jan Wolkers
The Sorrow of Belgium by Hugo Claus
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
Anais Nin's Diaries

In retrospect I forgot:

La Maison de Papier by Francoise Mallet – Joris

After taking a closer look at my “straight from the heart” answer, I came to the conclusion that 3 of the listed literary works originally were not written in English and that 5 of the listed authors are/were not native speakers of English.

Jan Wolkers and Hugo Claus wrote in Dutch, their native languages. They both passed away not so long ago and were/ are well respected authors in the Dutch speaking world.

Joseph Conrad was of Polish descent, Nabokov Russian and Anais Nin of mixed French – Spanish ancestry.

Of all the listed authors only 3 consistently wrote in English: George Orwell, Joseph Conrad and Anaïs Nin.

Living in a Dutch speaking country, reading books written in Dutch seems the obvious choice. However, many Dutch authors, even relatively well known Dutch or Flemish authors, cannot make a decent living out of their writing. Either they are being subsidised by government agencies or they have another profession on the side which enables them to continue writing.

The most successful Dutch and Flemish authors have been translated in English, among other languages, though it seems (in my experience) that relatively few people know their works or their names when mentioned on writers’ forums or writers’ sites. In the best case scenario, their names ring a bell.

Let us face some facts: when making a count of the inhabitants of the Netherlands and the Dutch speaking part of Belgium there should be around 20 million native speakers of Dutch (expats not included)

It must be clear as crystal to you by now that the native speakers of English easily outnumber the number of native speakers of Dutch… This may explain why authors writing in Dutch are not as well known worldwide as authors writing in English.

On the other hand, most literature loving speakers of Dutch are familiar with the most important/ best known authors of the English literary world. I believe this is due to the fact that English is by far the most used intermediate language in the world.

Is this last fact relevant when judging the literary value of an author’s work? In my opinion, it is not.

In my view, a writer or author does not choose in what part of the world he/ she is born or whether his/ hers mother tongue is used as an intermediate language or not.

In this article, I focused on the Dutch speaking authors because I was born in the Dutch speaking world, but in my point of view what I stated above is also the case for authors whose native language is not a widely spread intermediate language.

So, therefore my question: “Would you read a book, knowing the original was written in a foreign language?”

Needless to say, I hope you would!

Would you read a book, knowing the original was written in a foreign language?

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    • J  Rosewater profile image

      J Rosewater 

      8 years ago from Australia

      I have read innumerable books translated into English, the most memorable of which being the Sorrow of Belgium, which you have just mentioned, and all the books by Arturo Perez-Reverte, who is most famous for his 'The Flanders Panel' and 'The Nautical Chart', both of which went on to become bestsellers in the English speaking world, but were written in Spanish. (Just like Don Quixote, by Cervantes.)

      I do not think that in general, English Language readers are fully aware of where their literature and where their bestsellers come from. When you mention titles by Herman Hesse, Guy de Maupassant, Jules Verne, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Camilleri, Baricco (he wrote Silk), Proust, Collodi (wrote Pinocchio), all the Maigret novels by Simenon (who was Belgian)and many many others.

      The bible was not written in English - it was written in a variety of languages including Greek. All the fairy tales written by Hans Christian Andersen and Aesop, and a large part of the canon we feel 'everyone should read' contains a large proportion of works not orginally written in English.

      We owe a literary debt of no small proportion to Manzoni,Verne, Proust, Claus, Antoine de Saint Exupéry (The Little Prince), Sartre, Hugo (No, Les Miserables was not written in English, and neither was the Count of Monte Cristo by Dumas).

      And many would fall over in surprise to find Samuel Beckett wrote most of his stuff in French.

      So I could go on and make lists and lists.

      This is an interesting topic... well done!


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