Gains in translation for fiction readers and publishers

Translation has become a disruptive innovation in the monoglot, insular world of British publishing

Something interesting has been going on in publishing this year. Not the thumping increases in overall revenue – up 5 per cent to £6.7 billion across digital and physical books in the UK and Ireland. And not the surge in export markets: despite Brexit, exports are up 8 per cent to English language domains. There is nothing new about the dominance of Anglo-American publishing in a field where English has become a de facto global language – more books in English are published each year than any other language.

In 2021, running against this grain, translation has become a disruptive innovation in what has been termed a monoglot and insular world – that of British publishing.

Shattering the 3 per cent translations rule holding sway for decades, UK and Irish sales of translated fiction grew to 5.63 per cent. What the growth in translation signals about reading tastes may be even more telling when set beside a declining shift in general sales of crime fiction and thrillers. According to the Bookseller magazine, this is in line with a trend in which translated short stories and anthologies saw sales surge by 90 per cent over the last three years.

Recognising an attitude problem towards foreign fiction in the big publishing houses, some canny small publishers have stepped in. With creative flair tied to financial shoestrings, indie presses have brought major literary works from foreign fields to the English-speaking public over the recent period.

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In the UK, Fitzcarraldo Press has led this disruptive swipe on big publishing houses, with works from Nobel laureates: a triumvirate of women authors including this year’s prize winner, French writer Annie Ernaux, Polish author Olga Tokarczuk (2019 winner), and the Belarusian author Svetlana Alexievich (2015 winner). All three had been passed over by the major publishers.

How did this happen? In business parlance, the classical formula for disruptive innovation sees a product initially take root at the bottom of a market, in the underbelly of the beast, so to speak, where a small but growing demand creates the opportunity. According to this formula, expect Fitzcarraldo to move relentlessly upwards. Buy shares in Fitzcarraldo – you heard it here first.

Or in Peirene, a small publishing house which has been championing translated work for over a decade, its titles nominated for International Man Booker awards, among others. Peirene signals the unique value of translation by including the translator’s name on its covers, along with the author’s. This touches on an understanding of the work of translation as one of active creative collaboration as much as of conveying meaning across the linguistic straits.

Something of this relationship is indicated by the Argentinian writer Juan José Saer, writing “even though I couldn’t stand rereading my own texts, it gave me great pleasure to read them in her (his translator, Laure Bataillon’s) versions, leading me to conclude that the translations were superior to the originals”. (Translated from the French by Jessica Sequeira for Firmament Magazine, Sublunary Editions.)

Within Irish-language publishing too the lure of translation is seen. As well as growth in the Irish-language sector itself, evidenced in the development of the Irish Language Books of the Year Publishing Award, a new award recently introduced, Gradam de Bhaldraithe, seeks out the best translations into Irish of works from European writers.

Might we see further clues to what may be burgeoning in the dynamics of translated literature? Given the utility factor of written language – its common usage in the meaning machines of day-to-day business – PCs, smart phones, emails, texts, the quotidian command-functioning that English has become, does the intersecting of language offer a place of sanctuary for the writer, an indigenous zone of pure meaning surviving at the core of a diminishing wilderness?

Rónán Hession’s short story, The Translator’s Funeral, published in The Irish Times, explores the duality of translated work, its inseparability, the intimate relations between tongues. He has spoken of the limitations in being tied solely to the rules of English language. “But if you speak more than one language you can find that you are free from the rules of any one particular discipline and are less bound by conventions.”

Which inevitably raises the spectre of Brexit. Might a yearning for the polyphony of cultural life after the shock of Brexit add to the rationale for choosing fiction in translation? For Berlin-based Irish novelist John Holten, “translation is the lifeblood that sustains the conversations crucial not only to literary creation, but cultural understanding and development”.

London-based French author Cécile Menon is publisher of independent press Les Fugitives, “endeavouring to bring a new kind of writing to anglophone readers…texts by female writers that tell a certain kind of ‘fugitive’ story.” Does she see the aftermath of Brexit driving readers to seek refuge in the fugitive tale?

Sadly, Cécile finds that for small presses based in the UK, Brexit has had only a detrimental effect. She points out the direct relation, publisher to consumer, that typifies the small press engagement – and small presses can no longer sell to readers in the EU.

The need to survive means that different choices have to be made. Les Fugitives Press has launched its first foray into English-language originals, the quick brown fox. “Writers coming to me are anglophone but have read deeply and widely in translated work.” She mentions also Claire Keegan as an exemplar of beautiful, poetic language lying far from the exploitative functional modes discussed earlier. For Menon, “language and the imaginary are a foreign territory to be explored” and this is the real reflection on language that explains what is going on.

Fiona O’Connor is a lecturer at the University of Westminster in London