Wednesday, April 4, 2018

What Gets Lost When We Lose Translation

An absence of translated fiction means that English-speaking readers might never know what they’re missing.  ♦ 
Take a look at the current New York Times Best Sellers list. What do you notice? The usual sorts of titles are probably topping the charts—fiction from big-name authors like John Grisham, thrillers, installments of popular sci-fi and fantasy series, and maybe the occasional work of literary fiction. Most readers in the United States are so accustomed to this lineup that they don’t even notice that there’s something unusual about it—there’s hardly a translated book in sight. After all, when was the last time you read a book that wasn’t originally written in English? Probably during a high school literature class—maybe college, if you’re getting a liberal arts education. Perhaps it was something by Camus or Dostoevsky—authors that don’t exactly qualify as light reading. Chances are, unless you’re a serious fan of literature, philosophy, or language, you haven’t read a translated work in a long time. In America, there’s a notion that translated books aren’t something the average person reads just for fun. Besides, given the vast number of books written by native English speakers, what need is there to outsource talent to other countries? Publishers are already having a hard time selling books that are written specifically for American audiences—how likely are they to take a risk and invest in a translated work, which was originally written for readers of another culture entirely?
   Translated literature’s lack of popularity in the English-speaking world may not seem noteworthy to native English speakers, but when compared to other cultures across the globe, it’s highly unusual. In fact, in many countries, native authors are concerned that big-name foreign writers will outsell homegrown talent. Six out of the top ten hardcover fiction bestsellers in Germany in 2017 were originally written in English, and two out of ten in China. Interestingly, in China, another three chart-toppers were originally written in Japanese. In both countries, native authors continue to predominate in the non-fiction genre. Bestsellers translated from English to other languages don’t always do well on the global market, but they do tend to. Many of the titles which reach the global charts are already familiar to English-speaking readers—books by authors such as Dan Brown. This can be troubling, as many cultures face such an overwhelming glut of English-language media that they’re torn between remaining relevant to the worldwide literary marketplace—i.e., keeping up with the English-speaking Joneses—and supporting their own native-language authors.
   Meanwhile, the United States continues to bask in Anglophonic privilege, remaining blissfully unaware of the conflict stirring around her best-sellers lists. Popular translated works are few and far between, with many of them coming from the same few authors—such as Stieg Larsson, author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (in the original Swedish, Män som hatar kvinnor). His Millennium series of novels, though posthumously published in Swedish and later translated to English, received widespread critical acclaim and achieved great popularity among an English-speaking audience. Japanese author Haruki Murakami is another foreign-language writer whose works consistently see international success. These two, however, appear to be special cases.
   For a translated work of fiction to break into the mainstream of the English-speaking literary world, lots of little pieces must fall perfectly into place. A book must be translated and carefully fact checked for cultural accuracy—which is an intense and involved process. A translator must understand the language and associated cultures from which they’re translating, as well as be able to make unfamiliar cultural elements understandable to those outside of that culture. The work must then be edited, printed, and marketed, just like any other book. Not only is the process of translating and publishing difficult, there’s no guarantee that such a book will sell—in fact according to the numbers, it’s unlikely to. Only about three percent of the books published in the U.S. every year are works of translation, and most of them are non-fiction. The average translated work from a big five publisher only sells around 6,000-9,000 copies, and the numbers for independent and self-published works are even more grim—an average of below 200 copies. Those figures have a hollow ring to them that sounds a lot like a nail in a coffin, especially since the traditional publishing industry is already facing a lot of uncertainty.
   A vicious cycle seems to be dominating the business of literary translation—fewer works of translation sell, so publishers are less likely to invest in their marketing and production. As a result, global literature is constantly flying under the radar of the English-speaking world. Reading fiction allows you to see the world through the eyes of someone else—someone with different experiences, beliefs, and ideals. The United States tends to experience cultural and linguistic isolation relative to other countries, in large part due to the domination of English-language media across the globe. And although there is diversity within the English-speaking author base, there is still a vast world of fiction in all shapes, sizes, and languages, that has been largely unexplored by readers in the U.S. It may not be easy to publish translated creative works, but their value is incalculable.
  • About the Author
    Aimee Liston is a double major in Linguistics and German with a Creative Writing minor. In her (very limited) spare time, she enjoys songwriting, poetry, and learning languages. She intends to pursue a career in literary translation—or, alternatively, drop out of school and go on tour with her band, Seven Meter Sun.

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