Translated Fiction – Things you may or may not know

Posted: April 14, 2012 in Books and their issues
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Today i thought i’d share some thoughts on translated fiction.

I wrote my postgraduate dissertation on translated fiction and tried to find out why we in the UK have so few translated titles in comparison to native titles. One single statistic keeps popping up: apparently approximately 3% of books published in the UK are translated. I looked everywhere to find where this statistic came from and couldn’t find a single thing about it. Who knows how old this stat is, or even if it has changed by now, but 3% is still quite a small amount.

Why does translated fiction make up only 3% in the UK?

Well, the main problem is that people seem to think that the translation is off-putting if it isn’t very good or maybe it’s a bit clunky. After all, the best translation is the one which you can’t tell that it is a translation. It may be that one translator might not be the right candidate to translate a title, but sometimes they are the only one available. Or maybe publishers want to get the translation out into the market quickly so the translation may not be as perfect as it could be. Who knows?

Do we need translated fiction?

I must point out that, OK, maybe we don’t really need translated fiction in the UK, purely because we have so many great native titles to choose from already, without dipping into foreign book markets. But how boring would it be to not branch out a bit and read something different?

But why should we bother with translated fiction?

I believe that it is good to read translated fiction because it broadens your horizons, extends your knowledge of another country, another way of living, and another way of looking at things. Translated fiction is not something to be afraid of just because it’s written by someone with a “funny” name or because it was written by someone more unknown and foreign. And of course, once you’ve read all the native English books within, for example, the Science-Fiction genre and find yourself getting a bit bored with them, you might as well try foreign titles in that genre.

How do we choose the translated fiction titles we want the UK to read?

Think about how many millions of English-language books we publish in the UK each year, all written by native English speakers (not forgetting about English-language books from the US as well). Then think about how many millions of books are published each year in other countries, for example, Germany. Imagine you had to pick just a handful of German-language books from the whole of Germany’s book market to translate into English. You wouldn’t know where to start. You are limited in money, time and other resources, and maybe can only pick 2 books. After all, translating books isn’t cheap. You have to negotiate contracts with the original author, the translator, and the original publisher. Then work out how how you will market the books in the UK. Unless the books do well in the UK, odds are they won’t make you much profit.

Have any translated books actually done well?

Yes of course, although they don’t come along very often. The best example is The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson (from Sweden) which shot to the top of the bestsellers lists in the UK and many other countries. Plus, they were adapted into Swedish-language films and then into English-language films, which tapped into a whole new audience. These books are easily the best to emerge from the recent popularity of translated Scandinavian crime fiction.

If they’re so uncommon, then am i likely to have read a translated title?

You might be surprised at how many classic novels have actually come from another language. Maybe you read some when you were a child, or at school. A few examples:

  • Grimm’s Fairy Tales – Brothers Grimm (German)
  • Pippi Longstocking – Astrid Lindgren (Swedish)
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy (Russian)
  • The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
  • The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank (Dutch)

What do YOU think of translated fiction?

I believe we should read more of it, and get that 3% increased so we can enjoy more foreign titles. I try to buy more translated titles when i buy a bunch of books, because i am curious about other countries and how they view things differently. I also enjoy discovering books which no-one else i know has read and therefore i can share and recommend them, as i do here on this blog!

Where can i find translated fiction titles?

Just keep a look out in your local library, bookshop, or online book retailer for translated fiction. There are many available in print format, but more and more are becoming available as ebooks, which is really useful!

Where can i find out more about translated fiction?

There are many places to find out about these titles:

There are some publishers who specialise in translated fiction:

If you want to read any translated fiction titles that i can recommend, have a look at my Translated Fiction page for the booklist and reviews of all the books i’ve read.


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