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.
Second: The prizes: there are four to keep an eye on.
- The Man Booker International Prize, which in 2013 contained only 3 English language contenders (Lydia Davis won).
- 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.
- Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
- 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.
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?
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