It’s shameful, really. Only 3% of books published in the UK in English are translated from other languages. By contrast, in most European countries the equivalent figure is between 30% and 40% - in Finland, 80%. In my travels around Europe over the last year or so I made a point of looking in on the children’s sections of bookshops, and the penetration of English-language books was very noticeable – and not only with the obvious suspects such as Rowling and Dahl. In the UK, however, while you will find classic writers such as Astrid Lindgren (though only the Pippi Longstocking books), Laurent de Brunhoff, Tove Jansson and Hergé, along with a very light sprinkling of contemporary stars such as Cornelia Funke, that really is about it.
Perhaps none of this would matter much if we were able to read foreign books in their original languages, but the British (and the English particularly) are notoriously bad at learning foreign tongues, so that route too is cut off. I’m no better than anyone else in this regard. At school I studied German for seven years, and French for three, and passed my exams with colours that fluttered bravely, even if they didn’t exactly fly. But within a few years the language learning part of my brain had seized up like a piece of neglected machinery. There are odd sprockets and cogs lying about, and a whole storehouse of disassembled facts, but the thought of being able to read an entire book in either of these languages – let alone reading one for pleasure – is a taunting dream.
I’m not proud of this. I come from, and later married into, a family of multi-linguists, and my deficit has always struck me as rather disgraceful. Moreover, as a writer I’m naturally fascinated by my own language, but English is such a mongrel that to be interested in it is necessarily to want to know about the vocabulary, history and grammar of French, German, Latin, Greek... Yet, although I’ve made occasional self-taught forays into Latin (not taught at my school), Welsh and Esperanto, I’ve never climbed further than the foothills of any of them. Whether this is due to lack of talent or of application is a subject of recurrent debate, but either way I don’t see the situation changing any time soon.
What have I lost thereby? As I suggest above, one thing is access to literature published in foreign languages, the vast majority of which is never translated. But I regret still more the slightly-rearranged view of the world that fluency in another language must afford: the chance to experience a sensibility that evolved out of a different history, in which such fundamental concepts as time and agency undergo a subtle tectonic shift, in which new distinctions appear like mountain ranges (‘“neuf” and “nouveau” both mean “new” in different senses! Who would have thought it?’) and others disappear beneath the surface of consciousness (‘They use “porter” for “carry” and “wear”? How on earth do they manage?’). I envy my father, who told me how, when he was a seventeen-year-old cycling across Europe in late August 1939 – not the best time to choose for a cycling holiday, but that’s another story – he stayed the night in a French farmhouse and dreamed, for the first time, in French. Even fifty years later, his excitement and pleasure were still palpable.
Each language holds up to the world a mirror made with a slightly different curvature. I can think of no better training for an imaginative writer than to walk through this linguistic funhouse, peering at oneself and seeing a cast of familiar strangers staring back. This more than anything else is why I regret the fact that, in the universal lottery, I was dealt the card of monoglottery.