If eyes are the window to the soul, then reading fiction from countries other than your own can be one of the best ways to gain glimpses of different lands, cultures and histories. It is for that reason that the recent announcement of the shortlist for the International Booker Prize, which is awarded annually for a single book translated into English, is particularly to be cheered.
The original languages this year range from Spanish, Polish and Norwegian to Korean, Japanese and Hindi, and the stories the books tell all sound fascinating. What I come to praise in particular, however, is the way that fiction from around the globe can provide insights that news, analysis and commentary, no matter how expert, very rarely does.
It was only while I was going through Out of It, the debut novel by the Palestinian-British writer Salma Dabbagh, which I reviewed for this paper, that I realised I had never read an account of how people actually live in Gaza. I knew about the wars and the politics, for sure, and the suffering; all the news stories were about that. But I did not know about how amid the chaos and fear a population of just more than two million raised families, studied, traded, ate, fell in love and did all the things that those in any settled community do.
I wrote: "The very fact that we hear so little about this side of their existence comes dangerously close to… lending them the monochrome status of helpless victims." It took Dabbagh's novel to broaden my conception of their lives. (Incidentally, similar feats may be necessary for Europeans currently so concerned about Ukrainians to care a little more about the plights of people in Yemen, Afghanistan and Myanmar.)
Can you imagine what it would be like to grow up in a remote Albanian town that changes hands several times between the Italians, Greeks and Germans in the Second World War? How could you? Try reading Chronicle in Stone by Ismail Kadare, winner of the very first International Booker in 2005. Two of his characters discuss rumours of a mysterious red-bearded man from far away, one "Yusuf Stalin", who will rid them of the unwanted invaders.
"'Is he a Muslim?' Nazo asked. Xhexho hesitated a moment, then said confidently: 'Yes. A Muslim.' 'That's a good start,' said Nazo." It's a charming vignette that instantly brings to life how isolated from the world the people of that town and time must have been – to make that assumption, just because of Stalin's first name.
Sometimes a novel can convey a truth far more clearly that any number of reports or statistics. Anyone wanting to know about the post-independence history of ethnic Indians in Malaysia, for instance, would do far better to read Preeta Samarasan's award-winning Evening is the Whole Day than to pore through a pile of academic studies. The same goes for Vaddey Ratner's In the Shadow of the Banyan, in order to understand the reality of forced labour, starvation and persecution under the Khmer Rouge regime in 1970s Cambodia.
At other times a novel can connect you in unlikely ways. What could I have in common with a hard-bitten commander of freedom fighters in 1960s pre-independence Algeria? Very little, I would have said – until I read Ahlam Mosteghanemi's The Bridges of Constantine, and her description of the partisan loving his child "with the fondness of a father at forty". As I was around that age when my wife and I had our first child, I knew exactly what she meant, and suddenly I shared that very specific emotion with the novelist's character.
All the novels I have mentioned are powerful and illuminating, but without literary translators the works of Kadare and Mosteghanemi (and so many others) would be denied to English-speaking audiences. The success of translated fiction by writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami should not obscure the fact that historically the number of translated titles published in the US and UK made up only 2-3 per cent of the overall market.
"A translator cannot live by this skill alone," said the head of a Translation Studies centre at London University when I commissioned a report on the subject some years ago. When one considers the invaluable role they play – in effect, reimagining a novel in a different language, or "making intelligible a whole culture", as the late writer Anthony Burgess put it – literary translators are not just terribly underpaid, they are truly undersung as well.
This makes it all the more welcome that the International Booker recognises not just individual authors, but their translators as well. They share the £50,000 (about $65,000) prize money, and while the criteria for winning has changed – at first authors were judged on their whole oeuvre, not just one book as is now the case – their translators have always been honoured, too, as David Bellos was when Kadare won in 2005.
I have not even mentioned the issues of translating novels into other languages, and how important it is that, just as I was delighted to be able to read novels such as The Tobacco Keeper by the Iraqi writer Ali Bader in English (it was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009), this should apply in the other direction as well.
But the English language dominates internationally. And as the writer of the report I commissioned, Rachel Aspden, put it: "In an age of globalisation, English is at risk of editing out the rest of the world." Prizes such as the International Booker do their bit to ensure that doesn't happen. So let's talk widely about their shortlist, congratulate the eventual winner, and celebrate the writers who deepen our understanding of the world. They provide bridges between cultures. We, the readers, only have to step across them to enjoy their pleasures.