I grew up in the United States. English is my native language, and, while I am not fluent in any other language, I have varying levels of skill in reading a few others. In the past few years I have become fascinated with linguistics, not in the Noam Chomsky sense, bur rather in the history and evolution of languages.
This fascination with the history of languages has progressed over to literature in other languages. Growing up in the American school system, the majority of books, short stories, dramas, and poetry that I read were written in English, usually by American and British writers. This is not necessarily a mark of provincialism; English language literature has a very long and distinguished history that spans centuries, continents, and genres. Moreover, there are nuances in the original language that just cannot be captured in translation–save for occasionally with explanatory footnotes.
It is not that I have been unexposed to literature in other languages, but the exposure is generally limited. In my experience, a world literature course covers the following materials: (1) Ancient epic poems, specifically those in ancient Greek (The Iliad and The Odyssey) and Latin (The Aeneid). Sometimes this includes Sumerian (Gilgamesh), and Old English (Beowulf); (2) English language novels from nations once part of the British Empire; (3) The Bible and maybe the occasional other religious text; and (4) fiction in one of five other European languages–Spanish, French, Russian, Italian, or German. Occasionally a European writer who wrote in a different language (like Henrik Ibsen) will sneak through if he is famous enough, but they are few and far between.
I am not knocking such classes. Everything I have mentioned thus far is worth reading. But there is so much out there from so many different places, and it also merits consideration. For example, I have more than a passing familiarity with Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Hebrew literature comprises everything from Biblical texts through the modern state of Israel. Yiddish literature is a much more recent phenomenon, only a couple hundred years old. Both are extremely worthwhile for the reader. There are so many languages out there, large and small, which have a great body literature that deserves to be read.
It is not actually difficult to find out about foreign literature. Wikipedia is the new repository of all human knowledge (a blessing and a curse). There are also, of course, extremely flawed lists ranking works of world literature, but I am skeptical of such lists. Greatness is a nebulous concept that often suspiciously coincides with the list maker’s personal agenda. The Nobel Prize is even more suspect in determining worthwhile literature. There are a lot reasons for my distrust but primarily it is because Nobel has a long track record of missing many of the world’s greatest and most important writers. Tolstoy, Twain, Zola, Chekhov, Joyce, Ibsen, James, Auden, Woolf, Pound, Achebe, Nabokov, Strindberg, Brecht, and Borges are only a few of the notable names the Swedish Academy has overlooked. Proust died too soon, and Kafka’s major work was published posthumously.
Although the vast majority of readers of this blog are from English-speaking countries (especially the United States), readers from elsewhere occasionally stumble on my posts. Probably most of these hits are because of my Who Do You Think You Are Recaps, but to all of you who speak a language other than English, I have a question for you, and I would greatly appreciate any time you take to answer. What is the general consensus for the great works of literature in your language? Do you agree or no? Finally, what works do you believe will stand the test of time and should be included in a world canon?