Lost in fiction in translation

I have heard that publishers calculate a ceiling of about 3000 readers for any translated fiction. Only 3000! Are you one of the 3000? Perhaps you have contributed to the Scandinavian crime wave? Or have a copy of Kafka’s stories on your shelf.

Do you think that 3000 is a small number? I do, and I find it both very surprising and very depressing. It’s surprising because there is so much good fiction in translation. And it’s depressing because that kind of figure makes it harder for publishers to think of fiction in translation as a viable economic prospect. And because readers are missing out on innovative and enjoyable fiction.

Is it a small number because there is just so much good fiction in English that we don’t need to bother? Well that’s a very insular attitude. But the following figures suggest there might be some truth in it.

4.5% of literature published in the UK is translation. Compare with

3% in USA

12% in Germany

15% in France

24% in Spain

46% in Poland (figures from Publishing Perspectives)

It is possible that the figure is low because readers don’t get to hear enough about fiction in translation. So let’s celebrate those who promote it.

First: those imaginative, independent publishers: such as And Other Stories, Peirene Press and Quercus.

Second: The prizes: there are four to keep an eye on.

  1. The Man Booker International Prize, which in 2013 contained only 3 English language contenders (Lydia Davis won).
  2. IMPAC is the Dublin-based International Literary prize, in which public libraries feature strongly in making nominations. This year on the shortlist of ten novels, five were in translation.
  3. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
  4. The Society of Authors also administers prizes for translation in a whole range of different languages.

Third: A number of other literary organisations support literature in translation in their programmes. One is the Booktrust which has a downloadable pamphlet of recommendations by 20 writers, called Discover a World of Reading. And there’s English PEN, Free Word and the London Review of Books.

Fourth: We should recognise the work of the translators. And I’m thrilled that one of the translators mentioned below taught me languages at school. Nice connection.

36 Translation

Here’s my list of twelve books in translation not to be missed. No particular order.

  • WG Sebald anything by him. Translated by Michael Hulse and others (German)
  • Birgit Vanderbeke The Mussel Feast. Translated by Jamie Bullock (German)
  • Tove Jansson The Summer Book. Translated by Thomas Teal. (Swedish/Finland)
  • Per Petterson Out Stealing Horses. Translated by Anne Born. Winner of 2007 IMPAC Award (Norwegian)
  • Gerbrand Bakker The Twin. Translated by David Colman. Winner of 2010 IMPAC Award, and The Detour Winner of 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (Dutch)
  • Italo Calvino If on a winter’s Night a Traveller. Translated by William Weaver. (Italian)
  • Andrey Kurkov Death and the Penguin Translated by George Bird (Russian/Ukraine)
  • Diego Marani The New Finnish Grammar. Translated by Judith Landry (Italian)
  • Orphan Pamuk Various. Winner of 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature. Translation by Maureen Freely and others. (Turkish)
  • Irene Nemirovsky Suite Francaise. Translated by Sandra Smith (French)
  • Heinrich Boll The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum. Translated by Leila Vennewitz (German)
  • Evelio Rosero Armies. Translated by Anne Mclean. Winner of 2009 Independent Foreign Fiction prize. (Spanish/Columbia)

And then of course there are the classics, a list of which might start with these …

  • Cervantes Don Quixote no 1 on The Guardian’s 100 best novels list (Spanish)
  • Tolstoy War and Peace (Russian)
  • Erich Maria Remarques All Quiet on the Western Front (German)
  • Di Lampedusa The Leopard (Italian)
  • Flaubert Madame Bovary (French)
  • Alain-Fournier Le Grand Meaulnes (French) and ….

With so much excellent fiction being identified by publishers and prizes, and all that close and creative work being undertaken by translators, that figure of 3000 readers really should be higher.

Ok, that’s 17 books I’ve mentioned – at least. What have I left out? What would you recommend? Has you reading group found a gem not listed here?

36 Ignorance script

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Filed under Books, Reading

9 Responses to Lost in fiction in translation

  1. Just this year I’ve already read 4 translations (with varying degrees of success) in the historical fiction genre alone. Of those, I’d recommend
    “The Hangman’s Daugther” by Oliver Potzsch (translated by Lee Chadeayne) and,
    “The Iron King” by Maurice Druon (translated by Humphrey Hare)
    I have at least two more already in queue to read this year, one of which is considered a classic
    “In A Dark Wood Wandering: A Novel Of The Middle Ages” by Hella S. Haase (translated by Anita Miller)

    Along with other issues (i.e. title changes depending on country, accessibility to a title etc…) all have more to do with publishers not keeping up with the world/technology (and I’m not even getting into the e-reader debate). Eventually, those embracing the global literary scene will be those who lead. Those who chose not to change how publishing is done will find that even merging with one of the Big 6 will not save them.

  2. Hi Caroline,
    In terms of classics, what about Stendhal’s The Red and The Black? Or the original Liaisons Dangereuses?
    Years ago, a friend introduced me to South American literature including (of course) Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera – but also books like Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter and In Praise of the Stepmother, by Peruvian author Mario Vargos Llosa.
    I have only just started reading in, but a Finnish friend (author Helena Halme) recently recommended Sofi Oksanen’s Purge to me.
    And a book that really blew me away not long ago was The Cowards by Josef Škvorecký.

  3. Maggie Butcher

    Pereira Maintains, by the Italian author Antonio Tabucchi ( Canongate, 2010) was described by Philip Pullman as ‘the most impressive novel’ he’d read in decades. I would agree. It’s set in Lisbon in 1938 and centres on Sr. Pereira, an overweight literary editor of a conservative newspaper, who seeks to avoid confrontation with ‘the events’ that are happening in Europe by taking refuge in books. But the outside world impinges on him in a dramatic way. This is a gripping and moving book dealing with profound issues in a concise ( less than 200 pages) and compelling way. It’s beautifully translated by Patrick Creagh and has a fascinating introduction by Mohsin Hamid (author of The Reluctant Fundamentalist).

  4. Caroline

    Thank you so much for these comments and suggestions. Good to see active readers of fiction in translation sharing recommendations and making some telling comments about the publishers. Is it possible that good publishing will be saved by the independants? It’s beginning to look that way.
    I will be adding to my To Be Read Pile again, definitely the Tabbuchi, and dipping into drokka’s suggestions as well.
    Catriona, it was hard to stop the list, and I could have gone on through all the French novels I read for A level and at university, Adolphe, Les Trois Contes, Maupassant … But I think you are right that my list, suggestive as it was, misses the South Americans, except for Evelio Rosero. Magical Realism here we go!
    Thanks to all of you for the comments.

  5. Caroline

    And for children’s books the Guardian serendipitously produced a list of favoured translations the day after I posted this. http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2013/jun/28/translation-childrens-authors-favourites?CMP=twt_fd

  6. Eileen

    Therese Raquin – Emile Zola – my best book. I read it every few years. It is one of my Desert Island books.

    • Caroline

      Hi Eileen, must be good if you reread it. How many books can one say that of? I shall put it on my list. I’ve only read Germinal by Zola, and that was in French. It was a bit of an ordeal so I have neglected him since. Silly me!

  7. What is the ceiling they calculate for fiction which has not been translated?

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