Jonah Lehrer, author of Proust Was a Neuroscientist, wrote a blog post yesterday titled "Borges was a neuroscientist." It may sound equally unlikely, but Lehrer makes a case (himself building on another writer's appreciation) for the connection between Borges' fiction and recent neuroscience work on the formation of abstract concepts. Even a concept as comfortable as personal identity contains an element of abstraction: after ten years or after even a day, you or I may look very different, but most people have no trouble identifying both present and past person as instances of the same abstract concept. And it's that "most people" that's key: much neuroscience work depends on studying the exceptions, the people who lack a certain ability, to see what's different about them.
But even assuming that the ability is general, we still have to be careful about which specific instances we choose to study. Whether or not we are able to form abstract categories or identify some "essence" common to a set of phenomena depends a lot on our cultural background. Personal identity, for instance, seems safe—but some cultures treat what Western medicine calls schizophrenia as a revered and mystical state of access to other minds. And we are regularly expected to suppress our personal-identity-meters, whenever we watch a movie star on the big screen. (I find that I can usually quite easily see through a role to identify an actor—but that I often fail to do it for actresses. Perhaps my identity-abstraction-detector neurons are more tuned to male faces because I'm male?)
We're all like George Clooney's character in Up in the Air: "I'm like my grandmother, I stereotype; it saves time." (Clooney's easy to recognize on screen, because he's in everything: we have a larger sample size.) But we each stereotype in the domains that are most relevant to us, the ones where stereotyping saves us the most time.
Somebody saves time by stereotyping translated fiction as difficult or unsellable. Others save time choosing what to read by taking the publisher's deliberate design and marketing choices as a cue to shortcut via a stereotype: see my post on judging books by their covers.
The surest way to dismantle a stereotype (alas, not guaranteed) is to have direct experience of individuals who don't fit it. One of the ways that can happen is to bring multiple stereotypes into conflict—though it's unclear which one will emerge the stronger, or whether we'll simply muddle through with our "ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time" (as Fitzgerald put it).
So maybe a way to undo the stereotype about translated fiction is to undermine it by exposure to positively-stereotyped fiction that happens to be translated—like, say, mysteries (Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Andrea Camilleri)? If it works for mysteries, why shouldn't it work for pirate and vampire stories? Curate and present them as equivalent to familiar models, and their original language becomes irrelevant to the reader.
From a different angle: our ability to identify abstractions from real-world instances is also key to the act of reading itself. We can recognize thousands of different shapes, with gross or subtle variations, all as the letter a. For most people, the type designer's painstaking work might as well be invisible—and yet book designers carefully choose one typeface over another, as part of the set of subtle cues they assemble to trigger readers to stereotype a book one way or another. The publisher depends on this stereotyping to help sell the book.
Translators, like type designers, labor in obscurity, but that is not the same as invisibility. They can be handy scapegoats for what we dislike, and poor work by either can certainly spoil our appreciation of the author's achievement. But there should be no reason for most readers to stereotype based on the fact of translation, or the language of origin, or the translator's identity—any more than there should be reason for most readers to stereotype based on the cover designer, or the typeface chosen, or the type of binding.
And yet we do. It saves time. It's all very well-intentioned to ask publishers or readers to learn more or choose better, to move beyond their simplistic stereotypes. But it'll only happen if it'll save them time.