logo

Why Won't English Speakers Read Translations?

I don’t know the answer to that, and neither does Hephzibah Anderson, writing for the BBC, but she does summarize some of the arguments related to publishing literature in translation, and gives up heaps of praise to Pushkin Press, along with Open Letter, Words Without Borders, and a few others.

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. [. . .]

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.

Worth checking out the article, and hopefully the BBC will follow its own lead and start promoting more literature in translation . . .



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.