The danger of ghettolization

Interview mit Mohsin Hamid

Mohsin Hamid | © Jillian EdelsteinAs an author of international bestsellers you’ve received many honors. What does the nomination for the International Literature Award mean to you?

You know, prizes for Literature – it’s not like the hundred meters sprint in the Olympics, where somebody does it in nine seconds and somebody does it in nine and a half seconds. It’s impossible to compare fiction in this way. What I think awards do that’s very helpful is, they bring some books to the attention of more readers. And also, you spend so much of your life by yourself in a room, in complete isolation, writing, so if a few people, who are on a judging committee feel that your work is interesting and valuable, that personally means a great deal. But specifically the International Literature Award to me is very interesting, because most of the prizes that I’ve been considered for have been from the English speaking world, yet so much of my own reading is of non-English-language writers. I think this idea that the British give a prize to British writing, the Americans give a prize to American writing and the Germans give a prize to German writing, there is a kind of parochialism about that, which doesn’t reflect how many readers read and how many writers write. So in that sense, it’s quite special to be shortlisted for a German award. It’s a very cosmopolitan feeling. I value that and I’m very happy.

Your work has been translated into more than thirty languages. The International Literature Award is one of the few literary awards which also draws attention to the work of translators. How do you perceive literary translations in general and especially the translations of your works?

I think that translators are incredibly important. If I want to read anything in German – Goethe or Nietzsche or Günter Grass – without a translator that is impossible for me. But, also, I don’t know if I’m reading Goethe or Nietzsche or Günter Grass. I am reading something in English that’s been created by somebody else. And so the translator’s function is very important because it’s impossible to simply render one language into another language. What the translator does is, they create a new work and that new work should bring with it as much as possible of the feeling and sensibility of the original. So, I think it’s enormously important and it’s also an art. We often try to downplay the art of translation, because we don’t want to admit to ourselves how much is being done by the translator. I feel very lucky in terms of the translators I had, particularly in Europe. It’s said that Gabriel García Márquez said as a eulogy for his translator, Gregory Rabassa, that this man wrote my novels better than I did. And in that sense I think there’s a huge debt to translators and it’s very important that the prize gives them credit.

What are you currently working on and what are you plans for the future?

Well, I’m working on a novel. At the moment that is going quite badly. But that’s okay. It usually goes badly for a long time and then it starts to go well hopefully. I’m used to it. A big part of writing a novel is being lost, of not knowing where you’re going. And that’s the adventure of a novel and the frustration of a novel. So right now I’m completely lost. But the good thing is that I know I’m completely lost. I have a collection of essays coming out soon. It’s called “Discontent and Its Civilisations”. It’ll be published in the UK next month, and in the US in February and then hopefully after that at some point in Germany also. So that’s my big project right now.

Which international authors inspired and continue to inspire you as a writer?

Most of my great teachers and inspirations are people I’ve never met but who sit on the bookshelves in my study. One thing which I sometimes quite like to do is to read writers talking about writing. How they approach writing, how they think about writing, which is quite different from how critics approach the topic of writing. So, for example, I like Haruki Murakami’s book “What I talk about when I talk about running” which is really a book about running but also about writing and being a writer. I very much like Ernest Hemingway’s “A moveable feast”. I like Italo Calvino’s “Hermit in Paris”. And sometimes I read writers like Joan Didion, who will glancingly touch upon her own writing and write about life in general from the standpoint of a writer. So, I find a lot of companionship in works like that. And when I’m lost, which is most of the time, I like to read good books.

Which literary developments are you interested in? Which international trends do you think will influence the literary market in the future?

Well, I think that in a way people are reading books from all over the world. And people in Germany are more likely to read someone perhaps from Africa or Asia now then they were before. Certainly people in places like Pakistan read people from all over the world. One big change is that so many of the world’s writers are now writing in English it seems. That there are people who speak two languages, but choose to write in English. And that is both an opportunity and a danger. The opportunity is that you don’t need a translator. You can be part of the global conversation by writing in English. The danger is that we start to privilege the English language and we wind up ignoring the very important, exciting writing in other languages. So, many people who are keen readers today will be able to name maybe one or two Pakistani or Indian or South Asian writers, but the ones that they will name, will be the ones that write in English. If you ask somebody in Germany or Britain or American to name somebody who writes in Hindi or Bengali or Panjabi, they will struggle to name anyone. So I think the danger of this kind of ghettolization is growing.

How would you deal with this development?

I think we need much more translations. And we need translations not just of novels but of conversations. Imagine you would have a literary journal, which is published simultaneously in ten, twenty languages. Not with a different edition for Germany about German writers and a different edition for Pakistan about Pakistani writers, but a world edition about writers form all over the place and the same edition everywhere not just in different languages. I feel one of the dangers is that we are missing out on that kind of conversation. I read almost exclusively in English. And I read about places in the world where very few people speak English, but the writers are writing to me in English. It’s difficult for me to have a sense of what the larger literary culture is. It is a mistake to imagine that because English has become this dominant form that we don’t need other languages or that the other languages should be left each to itself. I think that is something that will eventually improve but now hasn’t really.

Ein Beitrag von Lisa-Marie Reingruber

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