The Particular Sadness of the Three Percent Problem: Part 3 – by Lydia Estes

Just as my Art History studies in college have allowed me to make sense of centuries of history through art, and this research with GLLI has emphasized how much I have learned about the world through the books I read.  As a teenager, I explored novels set in Mexico (Esperanza Rising) and short stories inspired by travels to Vietnam (A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, Pulitzer Prize, by Robert Butler).  Ironically, at the same point in my senior year when I was introduced to Chinua Achebe, I was falling madly in love with a woman I have never met: Joan Didion. Didion was introduced to me by my local bookstore owner, and essay by essay, she taught me about the California urban landscape post-1950, the American relationship with El Salvador, and even self-respect.  When I reread Things Fall Apart in college, I suddenly made the connection between Didion’s title essay of her collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and Achebe’s title.  Both authors, from disparate corners of the world facing incompatible tragedy, referenced the same poem by W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming.”  Unexpectedly, a village in Nigeria and the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco were connected in my mind by two push pins on a map and a (symbolic) piece of red yarn.  Two places I had never been didn’t feel so far away—nor so far apart—anymore.

For me, age 20 and half-way to a degree, there is so much in the world left to explore.  When I first realized this love for travel, I became fixed on a quote that utilizes my other favorite thing metaphorically: “the world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page”.   However, compiling lists of works in translation from South America and preparing for my own 10 months abroad, I have adapted my own version of the quote: “the world may be a book and traveling turns the pages, but who really travels if they only read one book?”

Sometimes I feel encouraged that essays by Didion and novels by Achebe can make the world feel smaller and closely connected.  Other times, I worry I could read one book a day yet never fully know the world. How could I, if only three percent of what America publishes every year is in translation?   I visited my local book store the weekend before starting this research and was disheartened to find there is not a Works in Translation section (admittedly, this is totally something I would not have looked for if not for this project with GLLI).  However, I happened to select a book from one of the display tables with an international setting made clear by the title. After flipping a few pages, I learned that the novel was a work of translation but the translator was listed in small print on the title page after the first title page that no one reads.  This to me was the “particular sadness” of the three percent problem that has become my focus for five short weeks. Not only do we have poor access to works in translation and books from around the world, but the ones that we can buy or borrow are not celebrated for their global origins. We might as well give the foreign authors American-sounding pseudonyms.

Art History has helped me better understand history in regions across the world, like how books have allowed me to travel to places I’ve never been.  They have both influenced me for the better. But studying art history has also highlighted the institutional flaws that have disadvantaged female artists and artists of color; the canon of “great art” consists of white, male artists—read Linda Nochlin’s “Why have there been no great women artists?” for her theory on how and why women have been excluded from the history of art.  Similarly, this research with GLLI has emphasized how little I knew about the publishing industry, the challenges of finding books in translation across genre and reading level, and the ramifications of the three-perfect problem.   

Encountering a fault in the history of art didn’t turn me away from studying what I love, and neither will realizing this shame in the publishing industry push me to give up on books.  I’m so grateful to walk away from this experience having reflected on my 15 years as a reader and how the books I’ve read, or faced roadblocks trying to read, have shaped my personal motivations to shed a light on this cause.  After all, I will be spending 10 months abroad in at least 10 different countries. I might be traveling the world, turning pages with each stamp in my passport, but who really travels if they only read one book—and not even a book in translation?

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