Lost: translation

Lost: translation

Richard Lea goes in search of the literary world disappearing from the map because of English publishers' resistance to books from other countries

Friday November 16, 2007
Guardian Unlimited

UN translators
The English-speaking world won't listen ... translators at the UN. Photograph: Daniel Garcia/AFP

A glamorous award ceremony at London's South Bank Centre. A scintillating array of international talent. An intellectual superstar as keynote speaker and prizes worth £16,000. You can almost see the flashbulbs popping and the reporters' microphones crowding in - but you'll be hard pressed to find any mention of last week's translation prizes on the front pages.

For the last seven years, the Society of Authors has been bundling all of their translation awards into one annual splurge in an attempt to raise their profile.

"These prizes celebrate the best of the work of literary translators, and at the same time generate further interest in translated books and literary translation," explains the society's awards secretary, Paula Johnson. But it's an uphill struggle. "If you look at review pages, you don't see translated fiction taking up an enormous amount of space."

It's not just a question of column inches. In any library or bookshop, the vast majority of books on the shelves are by authors writing in English. In stark contrast to publishing throughout the rest of the globe, translated fiction accounts for only a tiny fraction of the books published in the English-speaking world. In Germany 13% of books are translations. In France it's 27%, in Spain 28%, in Turkey 40% and in Slovenia 70%, but in Britain and America the best estimates suggest that the fraction of books on the shelves which started off in another language is somewhere around two per cent. One measure of the lack of interest in translated literature from both government and the industry is that Britain is the only country in Europe that doesn't produce any statistics on translation.

It's a state of affairs described by translators as "shocking", "pathetic", "scandalous". And according to Esther Allen, the executive director of Columbia University's Centre for Literary Translation, the crisis may be even deeper in fiction. "The number of novels being published in translation is ridiculously small - in the hundreds each year," she says. "If you sort out the authors who are already globally validated - Nobel winners and so on - and the retranslations of the classics, then it's absurd."

Translators also suffer from a lack of status, a situation reflected in the fact that only two of the Society of Authors' seven winners work as translators full time. Translation is considered by many universities to be insufficiently significant or original to add lustre to an academic CV, while publishers routinely sweep evidence of translation off the covers of books. "It's weird," says Allen. "There's no stigma attached to being an actor rather than a playwright, or a pianist rather than a composer, but there's this horrible stigma attached to being a translator." Translations are often seen as second best because they are interpretations of an author's work, but as Allen says, "It's like saying 'I'm not going to see Hamlet because Shakespeare's not playing it'."

"As you can imagine," says one of last week's winners, Sarah Adams, "literary translation isn't a great way of making a living." Even though most translations are of authors with a high profile in their own cultures, according to Adams, many publishers are unwilling to support translated fiction. "Most publishers get a grant to do the translation, print a run of 5,000 copies and then wash their hands of it." Publishers seem to think that translated books are difficult to sell, she continues. "By and large, if you can make people think it's homegrown - great."

It's a point that Bloomsbury's Bill Swainson, an enthusiast for literature in translation who published WG Sebald at Harvill and now publishes the Spanish winner of the 2004 Independent foreign fiction prize, Javier Cercas, accepts to some extent. However, he claims that the difficulties of commissioning foreign literature are often overplayed.

"Every publisher who's publishing a wide range of literature from around the world has their own ways of dealing with it," he says. He relies on a wide network of "like-minded" publishers in Europe and America, readers who are sometimes also translators, scouts and journalists to find the books worth looking at. When acquiring a book, he typically prepares a synopsis, extracts of the original, translated extracts and something about the author and the book's reception in the original language - a package which compares favourably with the information provided by literary agents for many authors writing in English. He's "sceptical" of figures suggesting that only around two per cent of books in the UK are translations. "I think the way to look at it is: 'Are the good books coming out in the rest of the world finding their way into English, and in good translations?'," he suggests. "And I think the answer is, 'Yes, a great many are'."

Allen is less optimistic. "I don't think anyone doubts in the slightest that there are very good books being very well translated into English," she responds, "and I totally admire the editors who are bringing them out. But it's hard to deny that there are extreme barriers to publication of translations."

She herself spent three years in the early 1990s seeking a publisher for her own translation of Rosario Castellanos's The Book of Lamentations (Oficio de Tiniebras) about an indigenous revolution in Chiapas. First published in 1962 and never out of print since, this Mexican classic was championed by Carlos Fuentes and cited as extremely important in the New York Times Book Review. "None of that mattered," she continues. "No US publisher wanted to have anything to do with it. I subsequently discovered that people had been trying for 20 years to get it published in English. I finally found a publisher in 1992, after Subcomandante Marcos obligingly led a revolution in Chiapas - making the book 'relevant'. If he hadn't, I doubt it would ever have come out in English - it's now a Penguin Modern Classic."

According to Allen, there's even a danger that the dominance of English-language publishing is putting other languages and literary cultures at risk. Ninety-six per cent of the world's languages are spoken by just four per cent of the world's population, she says. "Eco-linguists like David Crystal have started talking about a world in which there's essentially one language," she says, "which seems absurd, but when you look at the statistics on minority languages the situation is grim."

The combination of financial and linguistic muscle that English wields puts writers in other languages under enormous pressure. Creative writing schools in the UK and America are now seeing writers already published in their own languages enrolling for writing courses in English, a solution to the problems of getting translated which leaves the language they leave behind in deeper trouble.

Allen cites the example of Vassilis Alexakis, the winner of this year's Académie Française grand prix du roman, who writes in French rather than his native Greek. While the question of which language to write in is an intensely personal decision made under enormous pressure, she finds it "completely amazing" that a writer "with that kind of linguistic heritage should choose to write in French [partly] because otherwise no one would know of his work".

It seems undeniable that publishers have, at best, an ambivalent attitude to works in translation. Indeed, according to Christopher MacLehose, publisher at Harvill Press for 21 years, mainstream publishers have a ready excuse for ignoring literature from around the world.

"The idiotic notion is that there's enough being written in English," he says, "so you don't have to bother." English is so generally spoken that it's possible to read very widely and not notice that you're only reading books written in one language. Another excuse is that author and translator must both be paid, which is, according to the director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, Amanda Hopkinson, the prime reason for publishers' "resistance" despite "opportunities for funding within the UK and the EU which they're not taking advantage of".

But for Peter Ayrton, the founder of Serpent's Tail, the larger houses have it backwards: a foreign author can be a strength. "There's a general perception in the trade that these books can be difficult to sell," he says, "and as long as that persists it's a self-fulfilling prophecy." The popularity of international travel demonstrates an appetite for something a little different, he suggests, so translation is not "something you hide. If you're publishing a book from Istanbul or Barcelona you want to make it clear that's what it is. There'd be no point in packaging it as if it's from Middlesbrough." He feels that the situation has reached some kind of turning point. "It's getting easier to the extent that it can't get any more difficult," he says.

There are "encouraging signs" agrees Allen. "It's been in crisis for so long, and now people have begun to do something about it." She points to a National Endowment for the Arts survey in 1999 as the turning point in the US, a low point which sparked new presses, new departments of translation and PEN's World Voices, an international literary festival based in New York she helped to found in 2005. "This notion of an indifference to translation has been completely belied by our festival," she says, "which attracted huge audiences and was hugely successful."

In the UK, Hopkinson also detects "positive signs", identifying a "groundswell of opinion from the grass roots ... which we should be taking notice of".

For Hopkinson, translation is a crucial tool for promoting mutual understanding. "We shouldn't be discussing other cultures through English culture," she says, "we should be discovering their own cultures, what they have to say for themselves."

Swainson, on the other hand, has "never really thought of [publishing literature in translation] as a duty." After all, writers such as Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak were the ones who first sparked his love of literature. "There's such wonderful writing out there that it's not a hardship posting. It's a pleasure and a privilege."

Like Swainson, MacLehose is keen to stress the quality of translated fiction, suggesting that you could do worse than only read literature in translation. "It has all been through not just one filter," he explains, "through not just the Spanish or Italian editor, but also one in the UK, and then the best editor of all: the translator. Think how good the books must be." He is shocked when asked to justify the importance of translation to our literary culture, lamenting the fact that "we live in a world where you can in all seriousness ask that question."

"What is important," he continues, "is that some of the greatest minds, the wittiest of minds don't happen to be born in Manchester or Hampstead. We're living in a world, not in a village for God's sake!" He believes that the time is ripe for the pendulum is "to swing the other way". Hopkinson, who has devoted 30 years of her professional life to promoting literature in translation, is a little less sanguine. "We live in hope," she says.

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