The Translation Gap – Publishing the World in Words – 25th August 2015.
The dreaded 3% is a number common in talks of translation – it’s said to be the total percentage of books published in Britain that are translated from elsewhere. There are many questions – why do we translate so little? Who decides what we translate? Why are we so far behind so many other countries in this sense?
Publishing Scotland put on an event to explore just this topic, with Andrea Joyce (Rights Director, Canongate), Robyn Marsack (Director, Scottish Poetry Library), Halfdan Freihow (Publisher, Font Forlag (Norway)) and Markus Naegele (Fiction publisher, Heyne (Germany)) set to shine a light from varying international perspectives.
Markus begins, “As an editor, we’re don’t care how many books are translated. We do books because we think they’ll do well in our country.” Of their books, 12% are translations, with 60% of those being from English. “Translation raises your horizon”, but it can be very expensive, about 8,000 euros for a 400 page book.
The books he grew up with like Jack Kerouac’s On The Road were read in translation, and were vitally important. “Reading books is like travelling, in a way.”
Halfdan says that in Norway, they sit at 50% published in translation, 50% by Norwegian writers, but the 3% figure sounds about right from their experience in trying to export their work. In the 50s-60s, they thought Norwegian writing was going to die out, so start a fund to support fiction, distributing 1,000 copies for free to libraries. “Norwegian is a small language. It’s important to have translations both in and out to be part of the bigger conversation going on in literature around the world.”
In Norway, they have a democratic, collective system for translations: roughly £15 per 1,000 characters. It means it doesn’t matter if you translate poetry or the Harry Potter series, you’re paid on par.
Andrea begins by quoting A L Kennedy: “Translation is the language of one love passing to another.” But it does feel like this passing is just one way. UNESCO found that from 2000-9, 80% of all translations were from English. It can however help smaller languages – some of their translations have then been translated from the English version, as it’s more common to work with.
“People want to read what everyone else wants to read, but in their own language,” she continues. Canongate are publishing 35 books in the next year, and 10% are translations, 50% are international authors. Publishing translations remains the exception rather than the rule, because “it’s more complicated.”
Robyn then notes that the 3% is not quite right, that when you look at the proper context it’s 4.6%, so nearer 5 – “that’s a whole two more percent!” She believes it’s particularly interesting how a translator can be an advocate for a book – it’s about trust. “Often translators are the vehicle for authors getting into new languages. Your culture comes to another language. The translator is proactive on the author’s behalf.”
“I’m tired of people telling me you’ve improved my work!” one author is noted as saying to their translator; others arrive asking them to improve their work for another language. “An editor knows how much to improve and how much to leave.”
The conversation delves into several areas including a lack of incentive to translate to English, when several publishers expect it to be translated for free by the original publisher, ignoring how much the service usually costs. Simultaneous releases is another issue; often a hardback translation can be competing with a cheap English paperback version that the publisher has sent out; the consumer will tend to go for cheaper, even if it’s in a second language.
Then comes Irvine Welsh and translating for German – “They swear in Scottish!” but pulling off such an act in translation, well, “It’s a big art.”