What Ann Morgan learned from a year spent reading a book from every country in the world.
Shelf Unbound: You spent all of 2012 reading translated books from 196 countries. How did this project come about?
Ann Morgan: A comment from someone on a small blog I wrote in 2011 (ayearofreadingwomen.wordpress.com) got me thinking about how little literature I used to read from countries other than the UK and US. I couldn’t explain this, so I decided to spend 2012 (a very international year for the UK because of the Olympics and Jubilee) trying to read a novel, short-story collection or memoir from every UN-recognized country (plus a couple of extras). As I didn’t know what to choose or even how to find books from some places, I decided to ask the world’s booklovers to help me with advice and suggestions. I put a call out on social media and before long I was inundated with recommendations and other offers of help.
Shelf Unbound: You write, upon assessing your library, “The awful truth dawned: I was a literary xenophobe.” I was that way myself until we started doing this annual Read Global issue of Shelf Unbound, and I think a lot of people primarily read books originally written in English. Why do you think that is?
Morgan: I’m sure the reasons vary from reader to reader, but in general it has a lot to do with habit and with the way we’ve been taught to think about books. The proportion of literature that is translated and published each year is tiny in most English-speaking countries (particularly when compared to translation rates in much of the rest of the world), which means many of us have not been used to buying and reading translated books. As a result, world literature can sometimes, erroneously, seem like a strange subset of literature that is a bit daunting or perhaps not as good as our homegrown works. In my case, I remember worrying that I wouldn’t have the cultural awareness to understand books from other places fully, which is a shame because there’s so much richness and wonder out there.
I think to a certain extent this is starting to change. But it would be great to see publishers, bookshops and libraries being more proactive in seeking out works from further afield. Readers can also help drive that change. If we request a wider range of things to read, and buy and borrow more translated books, it will encourage those in the industry to bring more of the world’s stories to us.
Shelf Unbound: What did you gain as a reader from the experience of reading books from all over the world?
Morgan: I’m much more aware of the complexity of situations around the world and more conscious of some of the assumptions that underpin my own thinking and the stories that surround us here in the anglophone world. If you’re only reading texts written by writers local to you, you are likely to be exposed to a relatively narrow range of perspectives. By contrast, reading far beyond your national borders gives you the opportunity to develop your thinking and your ability to put yourself in someone else’s place to a much greater extent. And I now have a great network of friends and fellow booklovers all around the globe.
Shelf Unbound: You write of translators, “Depending on a third person to bring us something from a place we are unable to venture to on our own is an act of faith.” What do you think are the ingredients of a great translation?
Morgan: The recipe varies, I think. Some translators are very linguistically inventive, overcoming the challenges of communicating a text in a different language and cultural framework by ingenious means and sometimes creating whole new idiolects to reflect the voice of a book. Others work incredibly hard to preserve the precise feel of the original text, which can often require just as much dexterity. Both approaches can yield wonderful results. But perhaps at root it comes down to passion: a desire to share what it is about a particular book that makes it special, to create a text that will do justice to the original and to give readers a work that they’ll get something worthwhile from.
Shelf Unbound: When we read books in translation, we get to see other people’s lives and how they are similar to and different from our own. I believe that learning about our fellow humans in this way promotes empathy and could change the world. Do you share any of my optimism on that front?
Morgan: Yes (see above). And excitingly, neuroscience has provided some compelling evidence to support this in recent years, with various studies showing reading and imagining have the power to restructure our brains and make us more attuned to others’ emotions.
Shelf Unbound: Do you have a favorite or favorite from your list?
Morgan: No is the short answer. There were so many books that were special for all kinds of reasons—not least because of the efforts people went to to get them to me. A number of them are not available to buy, however I have done a list of ten favorite commercially available reads:
Albania – Ismail Kadare, Broken April
Canada – Nicole Brossard, Mauve Desert
Czech Republic – Bohumil Hrabal, Too Loud a Solitude
Mongolia – Galsan Tschinag, The Blue Sky
Myanmar – Nu Nu Yi Smile, As They Bow
Pakistan – Jamil Ahmad, The Wandering Falcon
Serbia – Srdjan Valjarevic, Lake Como (limited availability)
Sierra Leone – Ismael Beah, A Long Way Gone
Tajikistan – Andrei Volos, Hurramabad
Togo – Tete-Michel Kpomassie, An African in Greenland
As I still get contacted almost every day by people suggesting books to me, I also do a “Book of the Month” slot on my blog, where I select one book to review and add to the list on the blog each month. It’s a nice way of continuing my literary exploration—something I hope I’ll be doing for many years to come.
The 196 (… and Kurdistan)