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?
A cursory glance at a British broadsheet offers some insight into our national mindset. Whereas El País, Le Figaro or Der Spiegel often have foreign news on the front, second or third pages, in Britain, barring war or natural disaster, international stories are typically relegated to the middle of the paper, crammed in before the business news. As Nigel Farage’s oleaginous and ubiquitous grin beams out, one is left to ponder the peculiar insularity of an island nation with the most multicultural metropolis in the world.
In British schools and universities, too, there exists a stigma about reading fiction in translation. Where our continental counterparts will push on with Kafka, Kadare and Krasznahorkai regardless of the original language, we often limit ourselves to Kipling and Coleridge. The British are widely acknowledged to be substandard speakers of foreign languages, so translated fiction is necessary for us to understand other cultures. Translation is, as French author Philippe Claudel has said, a “window open to the world.”
The till-ringing popularity of novels like The Kite Runner and the glut of Booker winners from India testify to the keen appeal of tales from faraway lands—the texts just have to be written in English to be guaranteed a readership. With the increased interest in literature from Britain’s former colonies, there has perhaps been a corresponding decrease in interest in European and Latin American literature.
It is a platitude to say that something is lost in translation, but a harmful one nonetheless. As Julian Barnes has said, the “authentic rendering of every last meaning cannot be the sole purpose of translation”—and nor should it be. Through deft work and careful editing, translation can come close to matching the original. Gabriel García Márquez famously said that Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude was better than his own. Not everyone can be like James Joyce, who taught himself Norwegian to appreciate Ibsen. We must use translations to become acquainted with the great cultures of the world.
Contrary to expectations, the number of translations published in Britain is now gradually increasing, even if this isn’t reflected in sales. This upsurge is largely thanks to the assiduous work of bloggers, small presses and independent publishers like And Other Stories and Quercus. These publishers appreciate that great and undervalued literature is out there—it just needs to be sought out, as the Latin-American boom of the sixties and seventies demonstrated. In those halcyon days, a number of publishers—including George Weidenfeld and Fredric Warburg—were European émigrés fluent in numerous languages and literatures.
This year it had seemed like the Man Booker International was attempting to remedy the prejudice against translation. The panel of judges was, as Tim Parks put it, “very determined to look at books from everywhere.” Thus the 2013 list of nominations contained just three writers writing in the English language. For a prize whose shortlist had only once before contained more non-English-language writers than English-language writers, this was certainly a change of emphasis.
Gone were the English-language Nobel prizewinners like Saul Bellow and VS Naipaul; in were relatively unheralded foreign-language writers like UR Ananthamurthy and Peter Stamm. But regardless of this new Benneton-esque diversity, the result remained the same: an Anglophone winner with foreigners as bridesmaids.
In a pleasant irony, however, Davis is more famous to many for her translations of Proust and Flaubert. This suggests that translators are finally being recognised for their work. Other than Davis, Edith Grossman, Michael Hofmann, Margaret Jull Costa and many others have rightly won critical acclaim. Let’s hope that their efforts have an effect similar to Baudelaire’s translations of Poe or Borges’s rendering of Kafka. Our hermeticism cannot continue—Britain needs to catch up with the rest of the world.