Michael Prodger

There is a bald fact that underlies the whole question of the British reading public's  seeming indifference to non-English language books: only three per cent of the titles published each year in Britain (and America) are translations from a foreign tongue while fiction accounts for only one per cent. These paltry figures mean that readers here are not necessarily uninterested in foreign-language books but rather that they have no real knowledge of what is going on in the literary cultures that are geographically closest to us.

To put this in perspective, in Spain, France and Germany 2008 somewhere between eight and 14 per cent of books sold were translations. However, the dominance of English is such that in 2005 titles translated from English accounted for nearly double the total translated from the next 25 most popular languages put together (23,893 books from English against 13,763 from the next 25). After English the next three most popular languages were French, German and Spanish with, for example, some 1,100 titles being translated from Spanish into other European languages by 2005.

A look at the best-seller lists across Europe shows a familiar pattern: the big global blockbusters dominate in all (whether they be Harry Potter, The Da Vinci Code or 50 Shades of Grey) with national language books fighting to fill the remaining slots. There are of course a handful of books that break out from this pattern and reach unsuspected audiences. Scandinavian crime is the most obvious example, with Messrs Larsson and Nesbø leading the charge. An earlier generation of individual books – from Patrick Süskind's Perfume and Peter Høeg's Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow to Bernhard Schlink's The Reader – also made the break, with the most notable recent example being Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind.

The problem remains though: if Zafón's book whetted your appetite for Spanish fiction where do you go for more? There are a couple of prizes that have been designed to help. The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, for example, run annually by the newspaper, offers £10,000 to the winning book and a welcome degree of publicity. Over the past couple of years various Spanish books have been shortlisted, among them  Santiago Roncagliolo's Red April, Marcelo Figueras's Kamchatka and Alberto Berrare Tyska's The Sickness in 2011 and Evelio Rosero's The Armies and Juan Gabriel Vasquez's The Informers in 2009 (Roncagliolo and Rosero both won).

The European Prize for Literature is another high profile award. This Brussels-instigated prize looks to encourage emerging authors from across the EU's member states. It recognises that although the European literature market is worth some €40 billion the trouble caused by 23 official languages and 60 regional and minority languages can appear insurmountable. Unfortunately the prize itself reflects this Babel. It is run over a three year cycle with 11 countries being represented each year, the authors picking up €5,000 each. The Spanish winner was Raquel Martínez-Gómez for her novel Sombras de Unicornio (Shadows of the Unicorn). The EU also funds the translation of 50 or so novels every year, to the tune of three million euros.

Some publishers have made foreign fiction a central core of their business. Chief among them perhaps are Harvill-Secker (publishers of, among others, Manuel Rivas and Bernardo Atxaga) and the MacLehose Press (Elia Barceló and Evelio Rosero). Atlantic Books and Portobello also specialise in non-British writers. Some of the bigger presses are responsible for a clutch of Spanish authors with loyal British followings: Bloomsbury, and in particular Bill Swainson, publishes Javier Cercas; Phoenix publishes Almudena Grandes; Vintage publishes both Javier Marías and Arturo Peréz-Reverte; while Weidenfeld & Nicolson is responsible for Zafón.

The fruit of this publishing enterprise is that some of these writers have garnered extraordinary praise. The historian Antony Beevor, for example, has called Marías's trilogy Your Face Tomorrow “one of the greatest works in modern European literature” and in 1997 he won the prestigious International Dublin IMPAC Literary Award. Cercas's Soldiers of Salamis meanwhile, a “true tale” that combines the highest literary quality with historical insight, has been repeatedly hailed as a key work in the national “recovered memory” about the Spanish Civil War.

So although some of the best translated Spanish books can be found here given that Spain itself is unusually open to foreign literature the arrangement is hardly reciprocal. According to figures collated by the translation advocates Literature Across Frontiers, between 1990 and 2005 Spain translated more English literary originals than any other country except for France (35,806 as opposed to 48,599), the same was true of Russian and Italian titles while the number of German and French books available in translation was the highest of all the Mediterranean countries. Many foreign books were also made available in Spain's other languages such as Catalan, Euskera and Gallegan. Catalan is also the most translated minority language in Europe with 2,735 books translated over the period.

It is partly to redress this imbalance that in 2007 the New Spanish Books initiative was set up. Twice a year Spanish publishers submit the books they feel would be of most interest to a British market and a panel of independent UK publishing figures winnows them down to a list of suggestions that publishers can consult and choose books they might be interested in. This time around there are seven from which to pick.

This year's Autumn/Winter submissions amounted to some 220 books covering everything from cookery and children's books to fiction and business guides. While some would appear to have little by way of a ready UK market (Professional English for Restaurant Service and 20 Lessons on the Pathology of the Feet) others had a more obvious appeal, especially among the novels presented. The range was gratifyingly broad, encompassing everything from medieval mystery (The Mysterious Case of the Black Death by Eduardo Mira, a story involving Geoffrey Chaucer and rats), urban immigrant hardship (Difficult Light by Tomás González, set in 1986 New York and featuring a Columbian family struggling to come to terms with a life-changing accident) and campus murder (Almost a Still life by Carme Riera, featuring grisly killings at a Barcelona University).

There are books for children too, including the beautifully presented origami book About Paper designed by Angels Navarro – which will undoubtedly appeal to parents as much as their offspring – as well as biography, Santiago Roncagliolo's The Uruguayan Lover telling the story of the millionaire man-about-time Enrique Amorim who became Lorca's lover when the poet visited Uruguay in 1933. Among the books that didn't make the cut were a slew of practical books dealing with everything from sexual relationships to vegetable growing, not because they are not fascinating subjects but because there are already numerous books on such topics already available in Britain.

The appeal to the panel of all the books they put forward is that they contain something – often indefinable – that is distinctively Spanish. That may be geography or characters but it can equally well be an Iberian mindset that manifests itself, however subtly. There is, after all, little point for publishers here in picking up books that could have been written by UK authors, it is the very difference that is most intriguing. Since there is no magic formula to explain what will lead to success it seemed that the seven books selected had a general appeal that would give them a good chance of being noticed.

The possibility of both getting one of this season's NSB books translated and published is worth grabbing. While there are innumerable home-grown books published those of the requisite quality are relatively few and far between. Europe offers an alternative resource: Spain's publishing industry, for instance, is, after Britain and Germany's, the largest in Europe and the country saw more than 35,000 new titles coming into print last year. Among them will be books that, if they can be brought to the notice of a foreign audience, will undoubtedly delight them.

All these books will be in the shadow, as it were, of The Shadow of the Wind, which has reportedly sold up to 15 million copies worldwide with more than one million of those being bought in the UK. It is the second biggest selling Spanish novel of all time after Don Quixote. Regardless of the pleasure brought to its readers such statistics carry serious economic heft and the prospect of finding another such book should be enough to interest every reputable publisher around.

Michael Prodger