Translated literature enjoys sales boom in the face of Brexit

Over the past year, when Britain has been continually debating when and how to leave the European Union, there has been a surge in the sale of translated fiction in the UK. According to figures commissioned by the Man Booker International from Nielsen Book, UK sales of translated fiction grew by 5.5 percent only last year, generating sales worth £20.7m. The amount of translated literature available to UK readers has doubled  in the last few years, helped by the international success of writers such as Elena Ferrante, Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgård. However, the sales of translated fiction are much higher in countries like Germany, Italy and France, which could point to how, despite a few translated bestsellers, Britain’s literary taste remains largely Anglo-centric.

It is ironic that translated fiction enjoys a sales boom just when the UK are debating how best to leave the European Union, especially as books translated from European languages sell particularly well. As a student of translation, I would be interested to see if this surge in sales will change the way we view the translator and her craft. In his book Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, translator David Bellos estimates that there may be ‘as many as 7,000 languages spoken in the world today.’ Since the most ardent linguists are seldom able to master more than ten languages, translation, which comes from the Latin ‘translat’ and means to ‘carry across,’ is absolutely crucial in aiding us in a multilingual world. Still, the translator remains a shadowy, elusive figure. Notoriously underpaid, she is lucky to have her name on the cover of the book she has translated, and even luckier to have her effort acknowledged, or even commented on, in a review.

Don’t judge a book by the name on its cover, though: when reading translated fiction, you will always read the translator’s words, and not the original author’s. The translator must be the book’s most meticulous and ardent reader, and she must also be able to write with creative flair, to prevent her from creating a flat, lifeless version of the original source text. She must not simply be intimately acquainted with the original work, but should be mindful of the literary culture of the language she is translating into, so that the meaning may be carried across without a hitch.

Perhaps readers still romanticise the idea of the author as a solitary genius that writes in airtight isolation. Just as we refuse to acknowledge the roles that skilled editors played in the making of great writers (hello Raymond Carver and T. S. Eliot), it is even less tempting to view translation as a creative act in itself – we would end up with too many names on the cover. However, as there is no one-to-one equivalent between languages, the literary translator will always end up creating the work they are translating ‘anew’, as Bellos has previously argued. The finished product will always be the translator’s own version of the source text, which is a great responsibility considering how a translation can sometimes become defining – readers can pick up new translations of a beloved classic and feel like they are reading a different book altogether.

Hopefully, this surge in interest will encourage British publishers to take on more foreign writers, making sure that a variety of international voices will reach UK readers. In many ways, small independent publishing houses (with less to lose than their more established counterparts) have been upfront when it comes to presenting British readers with translated fiction: The longlist for this year’s Man Booker International Prize, an annual award handed out to a work of fiction translated into English and published in the UK, contained only two titles that had been published by major established publishing houses – the remaining 11 works reached UK bookshops through independent presses.

Perhaps this means that non-English books that aren’t necessarily ‘safe bets’ will have a chance of being translated and reaching an international market. It is crucial that publishers are willing to also take on titles that have not necessarily been award-winning bestsellers in their respective countries, as artistic quality and high sales are not always synonymous. It may be that if James Joyce wrote Ulysses in Brahui, or if Shakespeare’s Hamlet was originally performed in Sámi, they may never have reached a larger audience, regardless of their indisputable qualities. The fact that a small number of people speak the language in which they were written might have led to the Ulysses set in Pakistan and Sámi-Hamlet not being translated into any world language. Perhaps its cultural references would be perceived as too niche for a wider market: would they even consider translating hundreds of fragmented pages about people trotting around Balochistan, or a play about a young Laplander who swears revenge after seeing the Gákti-clad ghost of his father?

The thought of how each language may hide its own Joyce or Shakespeare, undiscovered gems that, if translated into your language could end up life-changing, but which instead may never gain a readership of more than a few thousand readers, is both frustrating and strangely alluring. The chair of the Man Booker International judges, Bettany Hughes, told the Guardian that the translated works on the longlist ‘enrich our idea of what fiction can do.’ I understand only one of the languages represented on the longlist, and therefore look forward to being enriched by the other twelve, in-between stocking up on pharmaceutical goods and applying for my temporary residency in post-Brexit Britain.

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May 2022
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