The art of translation: flying the flag for global literature

Read our report from International Translation Day 2016, as we celebrate the vital role translators play in bringing diverse voices to public attention.

International Translation Day (ITD), which takes place annually, is an event dedicated to helping translators share ideas about the profession, celebrating the often unsung role that they play in what Roma Backhouse, Director at Free Word, calls “opening up the world to people”. The day is a reminder that in these global times, the art and discipline of translation has never been more relevant. Given the fact that ALCS is holding more than £200,000 in unclaimed royalties for translators, we couldn’t agree more.

Opening this year’s ITD, held last month, Catherine Taylor, Deputy Director at English PEN, paid homage to 2016 as a huge year for translation both commercially and creatively, the Man Booker International Prize being just one example where “dual authorship” is recognised. This is an ongoing theme for ITD which is working to raise awareness of the artistic abilities of the translator. Assessing the demand for translated literature, Deborah Smith, translator of Han Kang’s Man Booker International Prize winner, The Vegetarian, reported recently that sales for Korean translated work alone has shot up from 88 copies of works in 2001, to more than 10,000 in 2015 (many of them being The Vegetarian).

The ITD morning sessions bought about some interesting philosophical questions: translators are the ‘guardians’ of the voice of the original writer – ‘the self’ – but are translators also a type of ‘self’? And can they claim some creative ownership of the translated work? As Franca Scurti Simpson of Calisi Press put it during one of the seminars: “We can’t be good translators if we are not good writers”. And if a translator is a writer: “a writer is his own voice and brand”.

We can’t be good translators if we are not good writers.

Although the demand for literary works from overseas shows no sign of slowing down, the work that goes into getting books into the hands of consumers is no small feat. It can take up to two years to get a translated novel onto bookshelves. This was just one fact revealed by a plenary session entitled ‘From Author to Reader’, chaired by writer and translator Daniel Hahn.

The session gave some fascinating insights into the role of the translator, particularly those who translate literary writers who may otherwise be undiscovered outside of their home countries….and sometimes just undiscovered full stop. It also highlighted the stages a book goes through from author to reader, enhancing understanding of the processes from discovery, through to realisation of a translated edition, and demonstrating the difficulties that each section of the industry faces in getting work into the hands of readers. The panellists, a translator/writer, an agent/scout, an editor/publisher, a publicist, a distributor, a bookseller and a representative of the media, each gave an overview of these stages.

Despite the particular quirks associated with publishing translated works, many will resonate with publishers in general. All types of publishing are affected by trend, and books considered timely subject matter will always be up for consideration. But it’s more than that: “It’s the books that make a difference”, said Ana Pérez Galván, Editor of Hispabooks: “the books that add value to the subjects they explore.” She reported that being a bestseller is a great selling point, but not a priority. Many books she publishes have been virtually unknown, but she’s commissioned them because she feels they will be well-received by the public. “A book that hasn’t sold, doesn’t mean it’s not a good book.”

Publicist Sarah Braybrooke of Scribe UK (specialist in narrative non-fiction and literary fiction) expanded on this. Currently working on publicity for Sex After Sixty, the “French guide to loving intimacy” by Marie de Hennezel (translated by Kate Bignold and Luisa Nitrato Izzo), she stated that books that are fun and fresh, and that break taboos, can have a market and publishers will want to sell them.

Another great example, Braybrooke said, was Gut, a book about the gastrointestinal tract, written by Giulia Enders and translated by David Shaw. This book breaks the taboo of talking about one of the most important functions and “underrated organs” of the human body, and does it in a fun way.

Publicists don’t want to speak for translation, we want to be part of the bigger conversation.

And then there’s Nightmare in Berlin by Hans Fallada, translated by Allan Blunden. Written in Germany after the Second World War, its ground-breaking depiction of life in Berlin immediately after the war and frank portrayal of drug abuse gives the book a very modern feel, despite it having been written in the 1940s. This helps give fresh insight into post-war Berlin, making the work an attractive proposition for publishers who are looking for literary works with something different to say.

Other books might work well because they feel culturally familiar. Braybrooke mentioned the latest work of Tommy Wieringa as an example. His most recent book, A Beautiful Young Wife, depicts the life of a highly successful microbiologist in The Netherlands. The prose style of the translation is similar to that of Ian McEwan, which is a useful comparison for a British audience. And with the main character being part of this academic elite and leading the international lifestyle that he does, Braybrooke explained that this made the book feel transnational.

The role of the translator?

Whether or not a book should be commissioned for translation is about how a scout or publisher feels that readers will receive the story, and with the volume of books that they have to sift through, this, they say, is where translators could have a bigger role.

Book scout Rebecca Servadio (MacLehose, Servadio & Pupo-Thompson Literary Scouts) explained her position as a matchmaker of books and publishers. Her role is much more impartial than that of an agent: “What I am trying to do is be useful in the process.” This might seem obvious, but the difficulty book scouts face is in receiving the volume of books that they do without any context – they literally have to read them all. What would help immensely, said Servadio, is some contextualization of a recommended work, which in turn would help her work out the narrative to quickly decide who it should go to, as well as how a publisher might position it in the market before translating it in its entirety.

Reviewing translated fiction is the most exciting place to be right now.

Fiamatta Rocco, literary editor of The Economist and the media representative on the panel, expanded on the potential role translators have in directing books to the right audiences: “September and October will see the publication of 700 books per month. Some of them will be fantastic, some of them will be bad.” Pointing readers in the direction of the most exciting ones is something she thinks translators can help with. “I want them to call me and say, ‘I’ve read this most wonderful book!’”.

Braybrooke feels that translators who feel so inclined should think about reviewing books. She also urges them to get in touch with literary editors, who she feels would be receptive to translators’ recommendations: “Don’t wait, it’s not somebody else’s job – you can be a champion!”

She believes that translators can play a bigger part in speaking up for literature: “Publicists don’t want to speak for translation, we want to be part of the bigger conversation.”

Limitations in the industry

There is concern that the UK industry prioritises writers who speak good English, and this is another area where translators can be key, says Braybrooke. For example, they could think about getting more involved at appearances with the original authors.

Overall, the panellists agreed that there is more space for events and festivals that value foreign writers and celebrate different cultures. Braybrooke feels the UK could do more to accommodate different languages: she mentioned that in Australia some festivals had staged bilingual events for Scribe authors who required interpreters.

Writer and translators are at the forefront of bringing previously unheard voices to the wider world.

However, Gary Perry, from Foyles, representing booksellers on the panel, was optimistic about the demand from UK audiences. “It’s changed that consumers won’t buy books from writers whose names they can’t pronounce – consumers have stopped being intimidated.” He is also optimistic about how Foyles responds to demand: if a book is requested enough, or even recommended by someone, he can pitch to his head office and recommend that Foyles should stock a particular book. Perry felt it helped with this process at Foyles that its shop floor booksellers deal with and buy directly from indie publishers, which can be helpful in linking consumers to translated works.

Concern about important voices being overlooked was expressed by Pérez Galván: are all the books that deserve to be published getting there? Fiametta Rocco shared her concern but felt the answer wasn’t in increasing numbers: “Our problem is that too many books are being published. We don’t need to publish more, we need to publish better.”

Rocco’s particular worry is that literary review space is being reduced in newspapers, which is a concern for the industry generally. Blogs have their place, but professional reviews are vital because they reach mass audiences. However, thanks to the increase in demand for translated works, Rocco was also optimistic: “Reviewing translated fiction is the most exciting place to be right now.”

The wider field

Whatever role translators decide to play, English PEN’s Catherine Taylor summed it up in her opening address when she said that translation is a ‘cross literary endeavour’ and translators are advocates for global literature. “Writers and translators are at the forefront of bringing previously unheard voices to the wider world.”

She also paid homage to the work being done to highlight refugee crisis as just one example of the imperative work that translators are carrying out. And in this vital mix also are the sign language interpreters, the translators who are physically bringing silent voices to bear, as well as those translating sounds into visual expression: a performance and an art in its own right.

“To craft something,” said Roma Backhouse, who shared the platform with Taylor, “that is both true to the original, and true to itself, and to create something that is just as beautiful and accurate in another language as it is in its original, is a real art… It is also a service, and a gift to those of us who read your books.”

International Translation Day 2016 was presented by Free Word, English PEN and the British Library, with support from The Booker Prize Foundation, ALCS, European Commission, Jan Michalski Foundation and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (UK Branch).

Report written by Jade Zienkiewicz from the Communications team at ALCS

ALCS Members: do you know any translators? We could be holding money for them!

In the past year, ALCS has paid out almost £80,000 to its nearly 2,000 translator members for the re-use of their works. This money is collected via licensing schemes primarily in the education sector. According to our records however, ALCS is still holding in excess of £200,000 for the contributions of more than 11,000 translators who haven’t yet signed up to ALCS. 
You, our members, are our best form of publicity, so please encourage any translator friends or colleagues to sign up in case ALCS is holding money that is due to them.