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American Books in German Stores

Tim Parks on the market for American books in Europe:

How does it happen that a reader begins to feel at home with the literature of a foreign country? The simplest scenario is when we begin to think of ourselves as involved in that country and its destiny. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men ... was written in California in the 1930s and is intensely engaged in an American social debate. But it is written in English and historically the British share a great deal with Americans. British cinema and television are overwhelmed by American productions, and we hear so much about their elections we sometimes wonder why we’re not allowed to vote in them. It’s not such a big step to read Steinbeck.

This openness to American literature is general across Europe. Go into any European bookshop and you find 50 per cent to 70 per cent of novels are translations, the vast majority from English, above all American English. Since the 1960s European readers have grown used to reading fiction set in a society quite distant from their own. So constant is the presence of Americana in their lives that no mediation is required beyond the act of translation. Jonathan Franzen can pack his descriptions with every kind of American paraphernalia – mechanised recliners, air-hockey tables, refrigerated beer kegs – and still be widely read.

The same is not true the other way round. American and English readers are not overwhelmed by foreign texts and, with the exception perhaps of crime novels, show significant resistance to the minutiae of countries they know little about. Only three per cent of the novels on British and American shelves are translations. But then Europeans show the same resistance towards cultures they do not know. A writer from, say, Serbia, offering the same density of local cultural reference Franzen has, would require significant editing, or some radical act of mediation before being accepted for publication in Italy or Spain.