In her recent consideration of Dalkey Archive's anthology, Best European Fiction 2010, Ruth Franklin wonders:
Other than the language in which they write, is there anything that unites [writers such as Ha Jin, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edwidge Danticat, and Nathan Englander]—all of whom have spent long periods of their lives living in places other than the United States—as definably American?
This immediately seems to me rather insipid. In taking full measure of all writers' work, "the language in which they write" is everything. If the language is English, then whatever is "definably American" about the work can only reach us through the Americanized version of this language. (Luckily the reach of English into many countries and cultures gives us Americans additional direct access to the work of many non-American writers, although I would still maintain that American readers are going to respond most fully to American fiction simply because they "know" the language as inflected by American culture, just as Australians will respond most strongly to Australian fiction. This does not seem to me a matter of "preferring" one's national literature to translated literature. It's simply a matter of fact.) As to what else might mark a writer as "definably American": Who cares? It's an exercise for an American Studies scholar, perhaps, but otherwise not a question relevant to the our encounter with the text.
I have written before that I feel comfortable engaging in literary criticism, at least that form of it I generally favor, close reading, only of English-language fiction or poetry. I am not able to get close enough to do a close reading of translations, since I can't be sure the text in front of me is an adequate realization of the original--indeed, I know it's not, as the only adequate realization would be the original. I cannot immerse myself in the language of the text, only the translator's rendering of the text in another language, and I don't see how a critical reading of this text would be a fair judgment of the writer as a writer. It's literally not his/her writing.
I experience this dilemma not as a reason to elevate literature in English above that produced in other languages but as a reason to focus my critical energies (although not necessarily all of my reading time) on work that I think I can assess accurately. I experience it ultimately as a forfeited opportunity to widen my own reading horizons, a result of my inability to pick up languages easily, or at least to learn one well enough to read an untranslated text with any degree of confidence I am "getting it." There's certainly enough that I can get from a translated text--most of its formal qualities and a general comprehesion of character or setting or theme, etc.--to make reading translations worthwhile, but I would venture into extended critical analysis of a translated work only when I think its most important qualities obviously enough survive the translation--as I did most recently with Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones.
According to Franklin, "There’s something a little bit ridiculous about continuing to use nationality as a primary label for writers now that literary culture has gone truly global." Nationality itself, perhaps so, but there's nothing ridiculous at all about using national language as "a primary label for writers." There may be an increasingly shared "sensibility" among "global" writers, but finally the way in which that sensibility is embodied in the available resources of the writer's medium--the particular language in which he/she writes--can't simply be ignored. To the extent it is being ignored, both in the commentary about Best European Fiction (where language differences among the included writers themselves are also being subsumed to the imperatives of the "global") and in discussions of translation in general, a fundamental fact about literature is simply being elided. I can't see that it does a writer from any country any good to encourage readers to think that language can harmlessly be tossed into a melting pot of flavorless "international influences" and be served up as a stew.