The Centre and the Periphery in Literary Translation by Renata Zamida

The Diversity Report 2016, conducted once more by the Austrian Association for cultural transfers (www.culturaltransfers.org is also the web page where you can download the Report for free), is a valuable data analysis and interpretation analysis of trends to be seen in regards with translation, bestseller-titles, subsidies and reading habits all over the world. Each chapter would deserve a comment by itself, however in this blog I shall focus on literatures in translation (and literatures without translations for that matter!).

There is traditionally little balance in literary works being translated from lesser used into wider used languages, thus titles from peripheral book markets  have a smaller chance for being translated and published at a central book market. Moreover, authors from peripheral book markets are doomed to stay peripheral also if translated, with little or no chance of landing a bestseller chart or a big-sized publisher. There are little exceptions to these facts. Let’s name one of the most obvious; Stig Larson’s Millennium trilogy, which in a way also triggered the Nordic noir phenomenon – and its translational success. The first book was published by quite a small publisher in the UK (MacLehose Press), as well as in France, and was long ignored by German publishers interestingly. On the other hand, this makes perfect sense – writing in a “small”, even “peripheral” language that editors of the biggest publishing houses do not read, makes the selling of rights more difficult, and the chance of landing one of the powerful agents based in London or New York close to zero.

Let us look at the bestseller charts. The Report shows that in average a third of all authors in the charts across Europe write in English, while others wrote in other European languages. However, besides Swedish, only translations of books written in larger European languages seem to have successfully crossed linguistic borders, to the point of climbing to the top of bestseller lists.

While we know that the percentage of books in translation being published in the UK is almost so low it can be considered a statistical error – amounting to app. 5% of all books published yearly (although some smaller imprints gained visibility with their translational titles recently, plus the launch of Man Booker International in 2015 are facts that improve the overall impression), the Report once more confirmed that also in other European countries (including the biggest ones) most translations are being done from English. In France, the share of translations from English, at around 60% is less than in many other European countries, including Germany, but still clearly a league of its own. In Sweden the portion of translations from books written in English plus the ones written in other Scandinavian languages, is outstanding, as together, the two segments account for almost 9 out of 10 translated books. The outstandingly high numbers of translations from English are consistent over the full period portrayed in the Diversity Report’s data.

The Report reads that a cascading system emerges, in which a few languages hugely predominate over all others, while hardly any benevolent support instrument has sufficient leverage to impact the mechanics at the core of the market, its gatekeepers and, certainly, what a larger reading audience is prepared to welcome. Authors writing in one of today’s predominant original languages, when it comes to translations (the Report identifies the following as such: English, German, French, Spanish, Italian, plus Chinese and Japanese) have a significant advantage in bringing their works to a wide international audience.

In addition, although Europe translates more than the rest of the world together, English is nowadays the source language of roughly two out of each three translated books, as the Report states. It I also noted that Europe today translates much more in comparison with 20 years ago, but a significant raise of the presence of books written in “non-mainstream” or “lesser used” languages just doesn’t happen; in spite of the various grants publishers can get for translating titles from a range of European languages, the biggest of them being the EU translational grant awarded by European Commission’s EACEA Agency. How to improve this remains the big question.

By Renata Zamida

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 6 February 2017.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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