Translation in the UK: Boom Not Bust Spotlight

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Translation in the UK

In a piece for The Swedish Book Review published in 1997, I stated that, “Roughly 3% of the titles published in the UK every year are translations (as opposed to 30-40% in France and Germany).” It is a puzzling paradox that Britain is such a multi-cultural society yet so insular when it comes to ‘foreign’ writers in translation. Especially since book-buyers just want a good story and are not particularly concerned about its provenance.

Dr Jasmine Donahaye’s 2012 survey Three percent? Publishing data and statistics on translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland is unequivocal: “Literary translation in the UK and Ireland – whether assessed according to its broader definition or restricted to the genre categories of poetry, fiction and drama – is a little higher than the often-cited 3% figure. Indeed it is consistently greater than 4%, and, over the sample years, consistently increases.”

She gives the following statistics:
“The percentage of all publications that are translations: 2.21% in 2000 ; 2.65% in 2005 ; 2.43% in 2008.

“The percentage of poetry, fiction and drama that is translation: 4.37% in 2000 ; 4.51% in 2005 ; 4.59% in 2008.

“The percentage of all literary genres (the entire 800 Dewey range) that is translation: 4.17% in 2000 ; 4.20% in 2005 ; 4.37% in 2008.”

New vs. old translations

Little seems to have changed since the early 1990s when I began my career working at a publisher as an editor with brilliant and visionary Mr. Pickles. The translation programme followed three basic strands: re-translated ‘greats’ such as Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov; neglected classics reissued in the Quartet Encounters series; and contemporary writers such as Thomas Bernhard, Amin Maalouf and Annie Ernaux published by us for the first time in English.

Dr Donahaye states that, “the three most translated-from languages are French, followed by German and Spanish, with Italian, Russian, Swedish and Japanese among the next most translated languages.” The global dominance of English and entrenched negative attitudes about translated literature on the part of mainstream publishers and the media undermine opportunities for improvement. However the picture is far from bleak and far more complex.

Sometimes new translations of old favourites are surplus to our requirements. It might be fun for the translator, and it might make the hopeful publisher a bit of money — but has any translation of The Iliad ever been as good as that of Alexander Pope? And has any English translation of War and Peace actually been as good as Louise and Aylmer Maude’s? Sometimes, though, a new translation really makes us see a favourite masterpiece afresh. And this English version of Crime and Punishment really is better than, say, David Magarshack’s (excellent) Penguin, or Constance Garnett’s old Heinemann translation.” So writes A.N. Wilson in a review of Dr Oliver Ready’s new translation of an old classic, Crime and Punishment.

Retranslating a classic may be a safer bet for a publisher than a new unknown writer, but how does a reader choose between several different translations available of the same book? Nowadays the name of the translator counts just as much as that of the author − which has not always been the case. Organisations like The Translators Association, BCLT in Norwich and English PEN do much to further the interests of translators, who are often invited to take part in book promotion events. At the Edinburgh Festival in the last couple of years translators have been the stars of the show as much as the visiting authors.

Translating the classics

The classics present a different set of linguistic hurdles to those presented by contemporary literature. To what extent does a translator ‘modernise’ to make the narration and dialogue sound contemporary? Does it matter if the writing sounds a bit odd at times? After all, a great novelist does not imitate life but offers their perception of it. The characters and the story are what remain timeless and universal. Words and their context are open to interpretation and argument. A. N. Wilson again, “So much of Dostoevsky’s effectiveness as a narrator depends on tiny details that it is of true importance to have a punctilious translator — but also a lively one; and Ready’s version is colloquial, compellingly modern and — in so far as my amateurish knowledge of the language goes — much closer to the Russian.”

Heated debate is no bad thing, as in the French sense of un argument: a discussion or debate in which various people put forward differing opinions, rather than the English sense of a loud, violent, angry disagreement. However, as Michael Wood writes in his review of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of War and Peace, “It is true, though, that all translations split their readerships in interesting ways. If we don’t know the language in question we don’t know what we are talking about; and if we do know the language, the translation is not mainly meant for us. The consumer can’t judge, and the linguist is not a consumer.”

Georges Simenon in translation

Penguin is currently publishing every single one of Georges Simenon’s novels, featuring the French detective Jules Maigret, in new translations by distinguished veterans such as Anthea Bell and Ros Schwartz. According to Jake Kerridge in The Telegraph, “One estimate puts sales of the Maigret series at 853 million, nearly twice as much as total sales of the Harry Potter books . . . My own view why he was so popular was that the books offered something more interesting than the conservative morality of most of the crime fiction of the period.”

To win or not to win: that is the question

But what of those great as yet undiscovered contemporary writers who deserve to find an English-reading public? The translator as the author’s champion is a crucial factor when it comes to lobbying commissioning editors, since they often know the market, publishers and their lists better than those responsible for selling English rights at the original-language publishers. Another easy way for a commissioning editor to find books to translate is to look at the winner of major awards like the Prix Goncourt and Prix Femina, Georg Büchner Prize, Miguel de Cervantes Prize, Camões Prize, Naoki Prize and so on. To take on a totally new unpublished British writer is riskier than an already tried-and-tested prizewinning author acclaimed on their home turf. However, will the book travel and does the cultural crossover work? Or would it come across better as a ‘remake’ (Frédéric Beigbeder’s novel £9.99 translated by Adriana Hunter was transposed from the Parisian Left Bank to London’s Soho).

In her report, Dr Donahaye lists around sixty publishers of translation in England alone. Individuals with real flair and passion such as Christopher Maclehose have led the way over the years, setting new trends – most recently Nordic Noir on the back of Stieg Larsson.

Indie publishers and translation

The number of aficionados is growing: Alessandro Gallenzi and Elisabetta Minervini (Alma Books); François von Hurter (Bitter Lemon Press); Jane Aitken and Pilar Webb (Gallic Books); Barbara Schwepcke (Haus Publishing); Ilraia Meliconi (Hersilia Press); Susan Curtis-Kojakovic (Istros Books); Meike Ziervogel (Peirene Press) are just some of the new luminaries. The 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize had a record number of entries: 126 books, translated from 30 different languages.

In the last decade or so, the importance of orchestrating a good marketing campaign has been fully taken on board, since without visibility a translated book stalls at the starting gate. And a marketing plan is inevitably a requirement to receive funding from the likes of the EU cultural programme, the Institut Français Burgess Grants, and English PEN’s Writers in Translation programme, (launch title, Putin’s Russiaby Anna Politkovskaya, sold over 25,000 copies).

Financial support can make a real difference. Ashley Biles, Sales and Marketing Manager at Saqi and Telegram, confirmed, while promoting Bi Feiyu’s Three Sisters: “This programme enabled us, as a small independent publisher, to promote an important new work of fiction by having the author visit the UK, appear in events, and attract review and feature coverage. It led to support from Waterstones and WHS Travel, which might have been difficult to achieve otherwise.”

Marketing translations

The principles which underpin a good promotion campaign include: ideas-based, topical marketing; matching presentation to audience; competitions and giveaways; inviting knowledgeable and passionate speakers to lead panel discussions; involving big names; online and print trailers; building an audience and online community. Pre-recorded interviews with authors and their translators which are then made available as podcasts are popular.

Translation workshops held at summer schools or the London Review Bookshop in Bloomsbury; promotion through touring events like those arranged by Speaking Volumes Live Literature Productions; or panel discussions held in venues like The Free Word Centre and strong independent bookshops like Foyles, (which recently launched a new website, well worth a visit), do much to raise the profile of what is all too often dismissed as non-commercial, niche publishing. Quite the contrary: a new chapter in the story of translation is being written.

We can get a clear idea of who is buying what, and of reader tastes thanks to websites like Good Reads, an online library of around 25 million members, where friends recommend books to each other. The most popular translated fiction title is Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, followed by Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind and Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore.

Amazon will sell any book a reader wants, without making judgments about it being a translation. It also publishes books in translation through the imprint AmazonCrossing. An increasing number of small, digital publishers have a fresh approach. Frisch & Co in Berlin are partners “with prestigious publishers from around the world,” including Suhrkamp Verlag and Editorial Anagrama. The founder, EJ Van Lanen, states on the company website that, “the idea of publishing e-book only seemed to me a good way to publish translations, and an excellent opportunity to see if there were possibilities of using e-books to expand both the number of voices that were available to readers of English and the audience for authors and translators.”

Back to the future: the internet is changing the dynamic for the better.


Three percent? Publishing data and statistics on translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Dr Jasmine Donahaye, December 2012. Undertaken by Literature Across Frontiers with the support of Arts Council England, the Culture Programme of the European Union and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

The Spectator, A.N. Wilson, 20 September 2014. A review of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, translated by Oliver Ready.

The London Review of Books, Michael Wood, 22 May 2008. A review of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2014: Our long-list reveals a fictional eco-system of staggering diversity, Boyd Tonkin, 7 March 2014.

Free Word Centre (Farringdon): Notes from International Translation Day 2012.

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About Georgia de Chamberet 381 Articles
Bilingual editor, rewriter, anthologist, French-to-English translator. Has written for 3am magazine, words without borders, The Independent, The Lady, Banipal, Prospect Magazine, Times Literary Supplement. Currently writes for The BookBlast Diary. Founder (1997) of London-based writing agency BookBlast.