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The winners of the 2014 European Union Prize for Literature (EUPL) were announced this October at the largest book fair in the world, the Frankfurter Buchmesse. 13 winners from 13 different countries were chosen as the most promising new authors in Europe, including the UK’s Evie Wyld. While the €5000 prize they each receive is not exactly staggering, the authors have the valuable opportunity to apply for EU funding to get their books translated.
The prize is funded by Creative Europe, a programme run by the European Commission that aims to promote literary translation across the continent. This encouragement certainly seems to be needed in the UK – according to Literature Across Frontiers, just 2.5% of all the books published in this country are translations. Compared to 12% in Germany, 15% in France and 24% in Spain, a huge imbalance in literary translation between the UK and the rest of Europe becomes clear.
Some might say it is lack of public interest in foreign literature that means investing in translations isn’t worthwhile for mainstream UK publishers. Yet the current boom in popularity for Scandinavian crime fiction, the huge success of the recently translated children’s book The Letter for the King, and – looking outside of European translation – the persistency of Haruki Murakami’s name at the top of bestseller lists, suggests otherwise.
Perhaps the issue is instead a practical one. Two thirds of all European translations are from English. Rather than this being anything to do with the quality or quantity of English-language books, it is due to the general dominance of the language in the world. A high proportion of European editors have a good enough standard of English to be able to read English-language manuscripts, meaning that the chance for UK books to be considered for translation in any given country is much higher than for books from other countries. In the same vein, not so many editors in the UK are fluent in another language, and therefore manuscripts can only be presented to them after translation.
But the language barrier is not the whole story. Take the winners of the EUPL: they have been handpicked as the best upcoming authors in Europe, their books have been laid out as potential bestsellers – and still the major publishing houses in the UK seem to ignore them. Out of 22 winners in 2011 and 2012, just 5 have had their books translated into English. This is not the failure of Creative Europe, who have funded around 3 or 4 translations per book for the 56 winners since 2009. Still, just a fraction of these were into English. Even the recent Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano has only had a tiny proportion of his books published in English, despite huge success in his native France and across Europe.
The publishing world’s insular attitude could conceivably be down to their misconception that the UK public wouldn’t buy foreign literature, despite the popularity of the translated works mentioned above. When translations are published, the translator’s name is rarely on the front cover – instead it is hidden inside the book, in an attempt to pass off the work as “indigenous”. Unfortunately, it is not just readers in the UK who are missing out. By not translating works from other countries, publishers are denying many talented authors the publicity and validation they need to get published in other languages, too. The industry’s approach needs to be changed, and this mismatch of assumptions corrected – the public needs to tell them loud and clear: if you translate it, we will read it.
Written by Jenny Nicholls
Image Credit: Enrich Design
The UoB Linguist Magazine
Guild of Students,
University of Birmingham