On Wednesday, the Man Booker International prize was awarded to the American author Lydia Davis. She was the fourth Anglophone, and the second American, recipient in a row. In a globalised world with more, better translations than ever, why are we still so resistant to literature in a foreign language? Perhaps it is just the panel’s way of showing support for North American literature, which has been overlooked by the Nobel prize since 1993. In 2008, Nobel committee member Horace Engdahl complained that the “US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” I fear that this myopia is part of a bigger Anglo-Saxon prejudice about reading fiction in translation.
Given the runaway success of translated novels like Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy—whose last instalment sold 400,000 hardback copies in Britain alone—we know that the reading public is no longer afraid of literature in translation. Even so, Larsson’s books were the sole translated novels in the top 100 best-selling books of 2012, three years after the publication of the last volume. Just 3 per cent of the 200,000 new titles published each year in the UK are translations—and the figure is even lower for fiction, equating to only a few hundred novels a year. In France, around 30 per cent of the books published are translations—and its national literature and literary culture remain as robust as ever. So why the cultural xenophobia on this side of la Manche?