Books in translation: hits, and a whole lot more

Books in translation are in rude health, or at least that’s what the latest research from Nielsen tells us. The translated fiction market is worth £18.6 million annually, up 96% from 2001, and although translated literary fiction titles only make up 3.5% of what is published, they make up 7% of sales.

This makes me happy. At the University of Exeter I teach people to translate, everything from financial reports to surrealist poetry, and I also try to convince people that translation is a good thing. We see new worlds, and our own world is enriched in the process. After nearly 20 years in university languages departments, first as a student, then as staff, I have often heard that people shouldn’t read translations if they can read the original – but why? Can a translation not reach the heights of an ‘original’?

Of course it can, although we all know of cases where we either know or feel that the translation is poor. Talking in 2003 about how translating for the stage has changed, Pam Gems said that “In the old days translators translated because they spoke Norwegian or Russian or whatever. And they burrowed away and tried to translate correctly. But of course what they produced was not drama. It was faithful and boring and C-R-A-P.”

Excellent translators are vital for us to have excellent translations. The quality of the original work is not enough to carry it in the English-language market if the translator is not up to the job. Deborah Smith won this year’s Man Booker International Prize (and £25,000) for her wonderful translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, which the head of the panel called “perfectly judged” – it must be remembered that the quality of the translation is a key criterion of the prize. And yet Smith’s role goes beyond that of creating the translation; it is she who suggested the translation of the book in the first place, and she has been an advocate for translation to the extent that she has set up her own publisher, Tilted Axis Press.

On the one hand, Nielsen’s research shows that the hits are selling more – 2001’s top ten sold 378,281, as opposed to 557,363 in 2015. And there are still literary phenomena every year, whether it is Ferrante, Jonas Jonasson – or indeed, for Spanish, there is Carlos Ruiz Zafón, whose The Prisoner of Heaven sold over 45,000 copies in 2013, followed by The Watcher in The Shadows selling nearly 30,000 copies in 2014. Indeed, the blockbusters are so well translated that some even suggest that it is forcing writers in English to up their game.

Yet, on the other, what is most refreshing about the figures is that there is growth across the board. For a few years now the industry has been aware that besides the blockbusters, there are lots of recent translated titles (as well as the classics) that are selling in their thousands. Looking below the surface, it is fantastic to see writers such as Javier Marías reaching a respectable audience in the UK with The Infatuations, or the Catalan Marc Pastor with Barcelona Shadows, both of whom owe their success in no small part to their translators Margaret Jull Costa and Mara Faye Lethem. Indeed, there is currently a rich group of skilled translators from Spanish and Catalan to English: as well as Jull Costa and Lethem, there is Peter Bush, whose translation of Uncertain Glory by Joan Sales was one of The Economist’s books of the year in 2014 (not bad for a book originally published in 1956); Anne McLean, winner of the 2014 International Dublin Literary Award with her translation of The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez; Frank Wynne, who made the shortlist of the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with one of the most perfectly complete short works of fiction I have ever read, In the Beginning was the Sea by the Colombian Tomás González. And joining them are newer translators such as Rosalind Harvey, whose wonderful translation (her first) of Down the Rabbit Hole by Juan Pablo Villalobos was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book award in 2011; there is Jethro Soutar, whose beautifully lyrical translation of By Night the Mountain Burns was also shortlisted for the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize; and judging by its consistently-high ranking in Amazon’s charts, Simon Bruni’s excellently received The Light of the Fireflies by the Spaniard Paul Pen has been selling in impressive numbers.

It would be wrong of us to only think of ‘high’ literature (whatever that is) and print when we think of promoting the literature of Spain and Spanish-speaking countries abroad. AmazonCrossing announced in October 2015 a $10m investment in literary translation over five years, and The Light of the Fireflies is an example of one of the directions in which the industry is heading (for better or worse, depending on who you listen to). Translated literature has long shown characteristics of being a ‘long tail’ industry (the term comes from Chris Anderson) – where there are a few hits, and then a long tail of works that sell at least a few copies. Over the years, these few copies add up, and so a strong backlist is an important part of a publisher’s sales strategy – we have to look beyond the hits to gauge real success. Then, the trick to increasing sales is to guide people to the works in that long tail, or even better let readers guide each other down the long tail.

So, Bruni’s translation was part of the Kindle First programme, raising its profile, and then reviews have snowballed (over 1800 at the time of writing), and of course the book will be recommended to people through Amazon’s emails, on the home page of their Kindles, and of course in pop-ups when they finish another book. Some people may not like this, but research done with Netflix shows that with such models, people watch more films than they would if they had to go down to the local rental store (if such a thing still existed). My research at the moment is looking at whether the long tail models in literature mean that we are reading more – and by extension, if we are reading more translated literature, too. And this isn’t just the highest literary fiction, which too many people think of when they think of foreign literature, but also thrillers, romance, comedy, and, of course, crime fiction. Everyone has interests beyond blockbusters, but not everybody’s interests are the same.

In this year’s New Spanish Books, the panel have aimed to choose books that appeal to all readers. There is literary fiction with Julio Llamazares, with a moving tale of what happens when your home is lost forever to make way for a reservoir. There is romance, childhood mystery, a writing club that saves a town, and even an investigation into the death of Pier Paolo Passolini. And there is a welcome presence of young adult and children’s books too – Sofía Rhei’s Young Moriarty books look like they could have been written to be bestsellers straight into English, Hachiko is the heart-wrenching tale of a dog’s love for his master, and even picture books are represented with the simple yet beautiful What colour are kisses? In short, we hope that this is a list that shows the strength of Spanish literature across the board, and how it has something for everyone.

Dr. Richard Mansell