English as the Global Language:Good for Business, Bad for Literature
English is well on its way to becoming the dominant global language. Is this a good thing? Yes, in fields such as science where a common language brings efficiency gains. But the global dominance of the English language is bad news for world literature, according to CEPR researcher Jacques Mélitz (Centre de Recherche en Economie et Statistique, Paris and CEPR). Why? Because if the English language dominates world publishing, very few translations, except those from English to other languages will be commercially viable. As a result, virtually only those writing in English will have a chance of reaching a world audience and achieving ‘classic status’. The outcome is clear, Mélitz argues: just as in the sciences, those who wish to reach a world audience will write in English. “World literature will be an English literature”, Mélitz warns, “and will be the poorer for it – as if all music were written only for the cello”. His work appears in “English-Language Dominance, Literature and Welfare,” (CEPR Discussion Paper No. 2055). By literature, he refers to imaginative works of an earlier vintage that are still read today, and therefore the accumulation of world literature refers to the tiny fraction of currently produced imaginative works which will eventually be regarded as ‘classics’. According to Mélitz, the tendency of competitive forces in the global publishing market to privilege the translation of English fiction and poetry into other languages for reading or listening enjoyment may damage the production of world literature and in this respect make us all worse off.
- Language matters: In the case of literature, as opposed to other uses of language, language does not serve merely to communicate content (say, a story line) but is itself an essential source of enjoyment. Therefore, it is futile to argue that nothing would change if all potential contributors to literature wrote in the same language. “We might as well pretend that there would be no loss if all musical composers wrote for the cello” said Mélitz. Translations can only approximate the rhythms, sounds, images, allusions and evocations of the original, and in literature, those aspects are essential.
- Great authors write in only one language: Remarkably few people have ever made contributions to world literature in more than one language. Beckett and Nabokov may be the only two prominent examples. Conrad, who is sometimes mentioned in this connection, is a false illustration in a glaring regard: he never wrote in his native Polish. Quite conspicuously, expatriate authors generally continue to write in their native language even after living for decades away from home. This holds not only for poets, such as Mickiewicz and Milosz, which may not be surprising, but also for novelists. Mann went on composing in German during a long spell in the US. The list of authors who have inscribed their names in the history of literature in more than one language since the beginning of time is astonishingly short.
- English is much more likely to be translated: For straightforward economic reasons, only works that enjoy exceptionally large sales have any notable prospect of translation. Heavy sales in the original language represent an essential criterion of selection for translation, though not the only one. As a result, translations will be concentrated in original creations in the major languages. Since English is the predominant language in the publishing industry, authors writing in English have a much better chance of translation than those writing in other tongues.
· English dominance of translations has increased: The dominance of English in translations has actually gone up over the last 30 years, despite a general decline in the market share of English in the world publishing market. When English represented about a quarter of the world publishing market in the early 1960’s, the percentage of English in translations was already 40%. With the general advance of literacy and standards of living in the world, the share of English in world publishing fell to around 17% in the late 1980’s. Yet the language’s share in translations rose to surpass 50% during this time.
· If you want to reach a world audience, write in English: In science, as in literature, a person writing in a minor language has a better chance of publication than one writing in a major tongue, but will necessarily have a much smaller chance of translation and international recognition. The result in science is clear. Those who strive to make a mark in their discipline try to publish in English. By and large, the ones who stick to their home language – English excepted, of course – have lower ambitions and do less significant work. The same pressure to publish in English exists for those engaged in imaginative writing who wish to attain a world audience.
· English dominance may cause the world pool of talent to dry up: However, the evidence shows that in the case of literary writing, the gifted – even the supremely gifted – in a language other than English generally cannot turn to English by mere dint of effort and will-power. Thus, the dominance of English may sap their incentive to invest in personal skills and to shoot for excellence. Working toward the same result are the relatively easier conditions of publication they face at home. If so, the dominance of English in translations may cause the world pool of talent to dry up.
· Literature may become just another field where the best work is in English: In other words, the dominance of English poses the danger that literary output will become just another field where the best work is done in English. In this case, the production of imaginative prose and poetry in other languages may be relegated to the same provincial status that such writing already has acquired in some other areas of intellectual activity. But whereas the resulting damage is contestable in fields where language serves essentially for communication, such as science in general, the identical prospect is alarming in the case of literature.
Along with the advances in telecommunications in the last thirty years, the dominance of English in auditory and audiovisual entertainment has become far greater than in books. Does the argument about translations in literature apply more generally and explain this wider ascension of English too? The answer is partly positive as regards television, but mostly negative in connection with the cinema. US television series indeed benefit from an unusually large home audience and only travel abroad when successful domestically. On the other hand, a film need not succeed in the home market before being made available to foreign-language cinema audiences. Hollywood achieved an important place in the cinema in the era of the silent film.