Wednesday, June 15, 2016

English literature and literature in English

The 2016 Man Booker International Prize has been won by South Korea's Han Kang for The Vegetarian (Chae Sik Ju Ui Ja), a book about a women who gives up eating meat as a reaction against human brutality. The prize, an off-shoot of the Man Booker prize for English literature, is awarded to writers whose work is available in English, even if in translation, and Han will share £50,000 with her translator, Deborah Smith. Smith did not even begin learning Korean until 2010 and chose it mainly because so few people knew it in her home country of Britain.

The award made me think about the importance of literature and its relationship to the spread of English. We live in an age when the role of literature in education is declining. Last year Japan’s Education Minister announced plans to close many humanities (as well as social science) departments so that universities can focus on “areas that better meet society’s needs”. When this was reported in UK-based Times Higher Education many commenters agreed, arguing that subjects dealing with feelings and impressions are not as useful as those relying on statistics and scientific methods. Yet even people who doubted the value of humanities felt linguistics and language teaching were important as they foster useful skills and involve some scientific research.

I think this is largely how I used to think too. As a child I was not much interested in literature, preferring to borrow encyclopedias and science books from the library rather than novels. I never learnt to recite long passages of poetry in the way that my parents and grandparents did. I did study literature at school, but I left English literature behind quite early and concentrated on languages like French, Spanish and German. I suppose I thought reading novels in these would help me understand and use the languages better.

Nowadays, however, I do think literature is important. We cannot personally experience everything that humans experience, nor would we want to; but through literature we can gain a better understanding of human behaviour. I believe literature can help lawyers understand why people commit crimes. I think it can help us work out how to deal with people at work and in daily life. Above all it helps us understand ourselves better. It is precisely because literature cannot be reduced to numbers that it forces us to learn how to explain ideas and construct arguments – something that scientists are often not very good at.

I was therefore interested to read three or four years ago that Muhyiddin Yassin, then Malaysia’s Minister of Education, planned to reemphasis English literature in schools. However, his reason was not to help students express themselves, but to raise English language skills. Ten years earlier, then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had proposed reintroducing English literature for the same reason, but in the end decided to improve English by having maths and science taught in it. Four years ago, Chua Soi Lek, head of a Malaysian political party, called for English literature classes to be compulsory as poor English was holding many students back in maths and science.

In former colonies like Malaysia and India English language teaching is controversial: few deny that it is useful, but it remains associated with colonial practices and ideas, and extending its use reinforces the economic and social advantages of the rich. The teaching of English literature is even more controversial. It still tends to focus on writers from Britain and America, many of them from the colonial period. Recalling his friend’s claim that “English is not a language in India, but a class”, Indian novelist Aatish Taseer argues in The New York Times (2015.3.19) that the language has ruined Indian literature: the many Indians who win prizes for their English novels depend on popularity from overseas rather than at home, and those Indians who write in local languages are not taken seriously. Taseer himself writes in English because his parents favoured it over Hindi.

So does literature in general, and English literature in particular, have a useful role in Asian countries today? Whenever I am in Malaysia I visit Silverfish, a thriving independent bookshop, and try to chat with its interesting owner, Raman. An engineer by training, and speaking Malay and perhaps several other languages as well as English, he clearly has no doubt about the value of English literature – indeed the majority of the books on his shelves are in English and most are literary. But he disagrees not only with those who think English literature is primarily a tool for language learning, but also with those who think it is about English speaking countries.

According to Raman, literature is about ideas, not language. And English literature is not just the writings of Britons and Americans: attacking Malaysians’ fixation on Anglophone culture on the bookshops’s blog, he claims “England has almost nothing to contribute to the world any more” while even the Americans “are not the force they were ”. Including all those brilliant Indian writers is still not enough. Reading English literature means reading anything available in English, including Chinese and Japanese novels in translation. The former Vice Chancellor of the University of Malaya, Professor Ungku Aziz appears to agree. Despite being born in London to a British mother he calls on universities to teach world literature.

Which brings us back to the vital importance of translators like Deborah Smith. In our short lifetimes we cannot learn enough languages to read all the world’s great books in their original versions, but we can read them in translation. Indeed I’m sure that a good English translation of a Japanese novel brings me closer to the author’s ideas than reading it in Japanese, despite years of using the language. So it is quite right that there are literary prizes for translators, as well as authors. But as translation takes time and money, many people will not find books in their first language and may have to rely on a translation into a second language, with English the most likely but Chinese, Japanese and Spanish also widely available.

So there may be one point that everyone can agree with here: a language such as English is undoubtedly a useful tool, whether it is for discovering science or literary ideas worldwide. I would go further and suggest that to have a really good knowledge of English (or any other second language), discussing literature is excellent training. Doing so does not necessarily mean we have to discuss the ideas of Britons and Americans.