Why won’t English speakers read books in translation?

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Literature from other languages makes up just two or three per cent of English publishers’ output – why is the figure so low? Hephzibah Anderson investigates.

Some call it the two per cent problem, others the three per cent problem. It depends on which set of statistics you use and, as with most statistics, there’s ample room to quibble. But what they all point to is this: English-language publishers have a lamentable track record when it comes to translating great stories from elsewhere in the world.

Surely enough, in the recent flurry of ‘autumn highlight’ lists issued on both side of the Atlantic, scarcely more than one or two titles in translation made the cut. Haruki Murakami’s forthcoming tale of a loner spurned by his friends, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, snagged a spot on plenty, and Publishers Weekly gamely flagged The Three-Body Problem, a futuristic escapade by China’s top sci-fi writer, Cixin Liu. But the other new books crowding the limelight at this frenetic point in the publishing calendar were almost uniformly by English-language authors: Hilary Mantel, Ian McEwan, Peter Carey, Colm Tóibín, Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters, Richard Ford…

Literature – fiction especially – offers a crucial window into the lives of others, promoting empathy and understanding in a way that travelling somewhere rarely does. By not translating more widely, publishers are denying us greater exposure to one of reading’s most vital functions. Compare that Anglophone two or three per cent to figures in France, where 27% of books published are in translation. And if that sounds a lot, you might care to know that in Spain it’s 28%, Turkey 40%, and Slovenia a whopping 70%.

Of course, those writers colonising the autumn book lists are united by something else besides language: their excellence. And let’s not forget that though they write in English, they hail from the US, Canada and Ireland as well as England. Moreover, their ranks might easily have been swelled by the likes of India (Salman Rushdie), South Africa (JM Coetzee) and Nigeria (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). With so many countries in which English is either the first language or a robust second, all of them boasting highly evolved literary cultures, publishers in London and New York are already spoilt for choice. Why would they go looking to territories that present the bothersome burden of translation?

‘Tower of Babel’

Adam Freudenheim, publisher of Pushkin Press, agrees that there are justifiable reasons why English-language publishers publish less in translation than their overseas colleagues, but insists that the balance is still out of kilter. At Pushkin, which he took over 2012, he’s been trying to change that. While other publishers take on the occasional book in translation, hoping for a hit in the vein of the Stieg Larsson trilogy or Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, 90% of Pushkin’s titles were originally written in languages ranging from Arabic and Icelandic to Hebrew and Greek.

Their London office is a mini Tower of Babel, with German, French, Italian and Russian all spoken fluently. This means that not only are Freudenheim’s staff reading books that originate in those languages, they’re also reading works translated into French from Japanese, say, or reading Hungarian novels in German. It’s a great boon to their scouting operation and most publishers, he acknowledges, do not have such expertise to draw on.

Equally impressive is the range of titles that Pushkin publish, covering books for younger readers aged eight to 12, as well as classics and contemporary fiction. Among literary editors and even publishers, Freudenheim believes, literature in translation has become associated with rather serious books. It’s easy to see why – just think of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic six-volume autobiographical novel series, My Struggle, or some of the recently anointed Nobel Laureates. If the author’s foreign, it can be tempting to assume their work is either literary with a capital L or else about murder in the fjords.

It is only plucky independent presses that are looking anew at foreign-language literature. Amazon, so maligned in literary circles of late, launched a lively translation imprint of its own back in October 2010. Since then, AmazonCrossing has published 129 full-length titles, translated into English from 14 languages including Brazilian Portuguese and Chinese. Earlier this summer Gabi Kreslehner, the Austrian author of the crime thriller Rain Girl, even found herself at the top of the Kindle bestseller list.

As Freudenheim notes, readers don’t see books in translation as being any different from English-language titles. Sarah Jane Gunter, publisher of AmazonCrossing, agrees. “Customers love good stories,” she says.

Independent spirits

In the UK, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (full disclosure: I was a judge a few years ago) has been boosting books in translation for well over 20 years, and if there was ever any lingering resistance to it, blockbusters like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo along with TV hits like The Killing have certainly helped wear it down. Professor Edwin Gentzler, director of the Translation Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, sees ample reason for optimism regarding the health of translation in English-speaking countries, despite those damning stats.

English-language publishers bring out so many books between them that three per cent is a hefty number – far heftier than Slovenia’s 70%, he says. Moreover, the statistics often overlook small independent presses like Dalkey Archive and Open Letter, as well as specialists like Mage, an American press that publishes translations exclusively from Persian. And then there are the numerous small journals – literary, underground and regional journals that publish poetry, short stories, and excerpts in translation. Chutzpah, Banipal, Absinthe – just hearing their names can be a little intoxicating. Further cause for optimism, Gentzler says, comes from the university press publishing scene (up to 30%of the Massachusetts Review’s list, for instance, is in translation) and the internet. To offer just one example, Words Without Borders has translated more than 1,000 pieces into English from over 80 languages.

Meanwhile, some foreign-language authors have already begun writing in English. China’s Ha Jin is one such, and his upcoming novel, A Map of Betrayal, did in fact appear in the Huffington Post’s ‘best of’ survey of the coming months. Another author who would surely have been included in those lists were he ready to release a new novel is Orhan Pamuk, who writes in Turkish but has been accused of writing for translation. Murakami, it should be noted, writes in Japanese but is so enamoured of quintessentially American authors that he has himself translated Raymond Carver into Japanese.

In an increasingly global world, such cultural cross-pollination is not only inevitable, it can be thrilling too. Yet we must also take care to preserve the variety and pungent authenticity that local fiction encapsulates. After all, if it weren’t for literature in translation, we English-language readers wouldn’t know what it is to converse with The Little Prince, to be transformed like Gregor Samsa, or to immerse ourselves in the magic realism of One Hundred Years of Solitude. Even the Bible, it should be remembered, is a book in translation.

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