Books in translation

Reading habits in the UK do not embrace diversity. Notoriously we rely on English being a dominant world language, so books in foreign languages are left to students of languages and those strange bilingual people. Only 4% of fiction published in the UK is in translation. Books by women in translation form a disproportionately small percentage of that 4%.

Gender is only one aspect of this general lack of diversity. Most published fiction is written by men and reviewed by men (see the VIDA statistics for the figures for several prestigious review publications here and in the States over some years). Novels by and about people of colour feature less frequently in our reading. Novels that deal with sexuality, transgender, disability, age and any combination of those are rare.

Fiction in Translation

Let’s praise those who are trying to bring more translated fiction to our attention. Peirene Press champions European literature, specifically novellas. I mention Peirene frequently on my blog because their books are beautiful objects as well as good reads, and subscribers are offered salons, supper club, newsletter and blog as well as three books every year. Their founder, Meike Ziervogel is also a published novelist: Magda, Kauthur.

Loving lists, I don’t hesitate to offer you the top 5 from Peirene’s List of 100 Translated Books Everyone Should Read, from their newsletter last year and chosen by readers.

235 b of chameleons cover

  1. Jose Eduardo Agualusa, The Book of Chameleons, translated by Daniel Hahn.
  2. Alain-Fournier, Le Grand Meaulnes, translated by Robin Buss.
  3. Isabel Allende, The House of Spirits, translated by Magda Bogin.
  4. Marcel Ayme, The Man who Walked through Walls, translated by Sophie Lewis.
  5. Honore de Balzac, Cousin Bette, translated by Sylvia Raphael.

I’ve only read the second and third on this list and 17 of the whole 100. I haven’t even heard of some of the titles. The list reminds me of how much foreign literature I am missing and don’t know about. Only 11% of my fiction reading was in translation last year. I need to do something.

235 HofSp cover

Women in Translation

Meytal Radzinski has done a great job reviewing the figures for women in translation. She put up two posts on her blog: Biblibio Life in Letters in January. She looked first at publishers and in part 2 at languages and countries. Whichever way you cut the statistics they tell the same story. Books in translation by women only represent about 30% at best. And the year on year picture does not appear to be improving. People always dispute figures about discrimination and if you want to do this you can look at the figures and her analysis yourself. She is transparent about the figures and how she interrogated them. In a third post she challenges the publishers to publish more women writers in 2016.

So novels in translation in the UK add up to about 4% of the total, and books in translation by women form at most 30% of that 4%. I think that means that novels in translation by women form about 1% of fiction. I notice that only one of Peirene’s top five is by a woman (but three of the translators). In the whole list I could only see 15 by women. Come on readers 15% is too low! The combination of foreign language and female author seems more than many publishers, booksellers and readers can deal with.

235 God dies coverWhat we can do

Read more translated fiction, and more translated fiction by women.

Support the initiative English PEN Writers in Translation.

Seek out more foreign fiction in bookshops and encourage them to stock more.

Look at the Man Booker International Prize for 2016. Here’s a list of possible inclusions suggested from the blog Tony’s Reading List.

Take out a subscription to Peirene Press and receive three translated novellas a year.

Bloggers, you can join in #WIT month (Women in Translation) in November, and post recommendations on your blog. Also available is the twitter hashtag #translationThurs.

You don’t have to wait for November to read and post more about books in translation, of course. Join me in April, when I am reviewing An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddie, the next in my older women in fiction series. And I’m extending my tbr list to include another from Peirene readers’ top five.

80 Summer Bk coverOver to you

Any more ways you promote fiction in translation? Any recommendations for readers here and now? What is the best book in translation by a woman that you have read so far in 2016?


To receive emails about future posts, please subscribe by entering your email address in the box.


Filed under Books, Feminism, Older women in fiction, Reading

14 Responses to Books in translation

  1. Excellent post Caroline… one of my key focuses of reading is translated stories, specifically Women in translation, not only to help address the woeful imbalance but I relish the quality of the literature & the glimpse at other cultures this genre provides.

  2. Eileen

    A timely reminder – I do not read enough from the perspectives of other cultures and diverse positions. I’m off to the bookshop so I’ll pay particular attention today. Love, e x

  3. I read a *lot* of translated lit, but I suspect more men than women (though I often seem to be dipping into Colette!). Pushkin Press are one of my favourites – they champion so much translated lit! 🙂

  4. Pushkin Press are well worth investigating as their list is virtually all literature in translation, mostly European writers, plus a sprinkling of titles from Japan and South America. They are one of my favorite publishers. I’ve yet to be disappointed with one of their books.

  5. Morag Goldfinch

    Oh what a great list from Peirene – adds even more to the tbr pile. I haven’t read these yet, but went to a talk recently about Italian writers in translation – you might like this link:
    My book group’s best reads of the year were both novels in translation ( male authors, sorry)
    Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov – a deadpan comic novel, set in Kiev, about a journalist, the Mafia and a depressed pet penguin…
    Pereira Maintains – Antonio Tabucchi – Lisbon in the 1930s and one small man’s heroic act of rebellion.
    Best female author in translation read this year – Jenny Erpenbeck – The Book of Words.Would be a good companion read to The Mussel Feast. Short, powerful and very disturbing.

  6. Jonathan Ruppin

    I do think it’s principally an issue of supply. In the English PEN Translated Literature Book Club, which I founded last year, it became apparent after the first few months that focussing on countries outside Western Europe, as I was keen to do, often left us with relatively few women to chose from. (We pick a a country, ask members to suggest titles, then vote.) So we’re currently having a couple of women-only months to help redress the balance. I suspect we’ll need to do this again from time to time for quite some time, but there are at least some great indie publishers who champion literature in translation now addressing the gender imbalance too.

    • Caroline

      This is a useful perspective. Of course, women have to get published in the first place in the countries you were asking. It’s a question of who the gatekeepers are.
      I hope the women-only months will help. It all helps.
      Love the English PEN Translation Club, by the way.
      Thanks for the comment.

  7. Thanks for the heads up about women in translation month, Caroline. Made a note of that for November to hopefully flag up a few. Meanwhile here’s my favourite so far this year:
    Where Love begins
    Thanks also for the reminder of Nawal el Sadaawi, fabulous writer who was exposing FGM long before it became “fashionable”. I came to her many years ago via Zed books – wonder if they’re still around.

    • Caroline

      I’ll have to look out for that one, Where Love Begins.
      I heard Nawal el Sadaawi recently on the radio and she was just as feisty as ever. (I too remember Zed books but I don’t think I still have mine. Why not?!!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *