New Wave in Translation

The Bookseller, 25 March 2005

Nicholas Clee investigates a subtle and positive shift in attitudes towards fiction in translation

You may think that this is a boom time for fiction in translation. A Spanish novel, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, has been one of the bestsellers of the year; and, according to The Bookseller (25th February), other foreign authors including Haruki Murakami, V M Manfredi and Boris Akunin have been selling well too. New and imaginative publishing houses specialising in translations have sprung up. More money to subsidise the publication of foreign literature is available than ever before. A national newspaper supports a foreign fiction prize. Conferences and tours promote the expansion of our literary horizons.

However, veterans in the field are restrained in their celebrations. One, commenting on the remark by Philip Gwyn Jones of new publisher Portobello that he would ‘rather publish the best Danish novel of the year that the 38th-best novel English novel’, says, ‘I think I’d go for the English one’.

Literary fiction is hard to sell; foreign literary fiction, doubly so. Consider the response each year to the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Daily Telegraph typified it, in reporting on the news that Elfriede Jelinek had been named the 2004 laureate; it quoted a British publisher as saying: ‘I bet it’ll be an Indian next year.’ A literary agent described the decision as ‘so typical of the Swedes’. The report misspelled the author’s name throughout.

Serpent’s Tail, Jelinek’s UK publisher, has sold 100,000 copies of her books since the announcement. Half of those sales have been made in the US; 20,000 in the UK; and 30,000 in other territories. Waterstone’s put her best-known work, the bleak and graphic The Piano Teacher, in its Valentine’s Day promotion. ‘I think it was for people who wanted to separate on Valentine’s Day,’ Pete Ayrton, Serpent’s Tail MD, says.

Halycon days
The bien pensant view is that chain booksellers are narrowing the range of available fiction as they concentrate on three-for-twos and the latest TV tie-ins. Waterstone’s comes in for stick, particularly from people who remember an apparent golden age when the chain stocked a wide and adventurous literary range. However, the days have gone when Waterstone’s could afford to carry a broad and deep selection of titles that may sell in relatively small numbers. Critics say the booksellers’ approach is self-fulfilling, and that Waterstone’s has proved it can sell difficult books if it tries. Either way, there is no hard evidence that more translated fiction was being sold out of bookshops (although it may have been sold in to them) 10 years ago than is the case now.

‘I honestly don’t know about booksellers,’ says Gary Pulsifer of Arcadia. ‘We have contacts at Waterstone’s, and we can get Suzie Dooré [of Waterstone’s] to support us and to come to events, such as a lunch at the Norwegian Embassy. I’d say that there were pockets of support for what we do.’ Other publishers report a similar climate.

Patchy support is not a problem exclusive to translated fiction: it applies to literary fiction in general. On publication, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty (Picador), which went on to win last year’s Man Booker Prize, attracted a disappointing initial subscription. If Hollinghurst, guaranteed to get lead review and feature coverage, can struggle to win booksellers’ backing, think of the obstacles an unknown Turkish writer will face.

Nevertheless, an unknown (in the UK, that is) Turk, Elif Shafak, is to feature in Waterstone’s summer reading promotion with her novel The Flea Palace (Marion Boyars). As mentioned above, Waterstone’s has promoted Elfriede Jelinek recently; it is about to promote a novel by Swedish author Carl-Johan Vallgren entitled, challengingly for the jacket designer, The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot: His Wonderful Love and His Terrible Hatred (Harvill). Throuhg the chains, Serpent’s Tail has sold a good many copies of French writer Catherine Millet’s The Sexual Life of Catharine M (published in a mass market edition by Corgi) and Italian teenager Melissa P’s One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed. Clearly, the chains sell plenty of copies of novels by Umberto Eco, Milan Kundera, Paulo Coelho, Michelle Houellebecq and Henning Mankell; and they are doing well now with The Shadow of the Wind. Once authors achieve a certain currency, their nationalities are no longer an issue.

‘If a book is good, people almost seem to forget that it has been translated,’ says Kirsty Dunseath, who published The Shadow of the Wind at Weidenfeld/Orion. ‘It certainly didn’t seem to worry them with Sophie’s World [Norwegian Jostein Gaarder’s huge bestseller on the Orion backlist]. What we hear from booksellers is that if a book tells a great story and has a good translation, it will win through.’ Dunseath, who reads Spanish, never believed that the nationality of Zafón’s novel would harmits chances: she bought the rights for a reported £50,000, which is not the kind of sum to spend if you lack confidence. She is also the editor of Arturo Pérez-Reverte; and earlier this year she signed up a Scandinavian bestseller, Christian Jungersen’s The Exception, which Orion will also aim at the bestseller lists.

Suzie Dooré, who is fiction buyer at Waterstone’s, confirms Dunseath’s view. ‘I don’t think that people go into a bookshop looking for translated fiction – or with a view that they don’t want translated fiction,’ she says. ‘They just want a good book.’ A few branches of Waterstone’s have translation sections, but most shelve translated works of fiction in the main fiction section. Dooré’s own selection policies reflect this lack of segregation: she looks for novels that are well-written, translated and presented. She is mindful of ‘a certain resistance’ among British readers to works originally written in another language; but says that in promoting such novels as The Flea Palace, Waterstone’s can communicate to its customers that ‘not being able to pronounce the author’s name is no reason to doubt that you’ll enjoy this book’.

The Flea Palace and The Shadow of the Wind were longlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and Elif Shafak, with her translator Muge Gocek, went on to make the shortlist announced on 4th March. Boyd Tonkin, literary editor of the Independent, is the outstanding champion of translated fiction in the press. Elsewhere, publishers find it harder to get coverage.

Out of Africa
‘We published one of Africa’s leading novelists, Mia Couto [The Last Flight of the Flamingo], and got no reviews at all,’ Ayrton says. ‘It’s almost inconceivable that that could happen in the States.’ And it’s not only for the review coverage that publishers of translations need a presence in the US: the extra sales, as in the case of Serpent’s Tail’s sales of 50% of its print-runs of Jelinek’s books there, are vital if the books are to stand any chance of making a profit. ‘Some of our books have sold better in the US than they have here,’ says Laurence Colchester of Bitter Lemon Press, which has an attractive list of foreign crime novels. Classic texts can also benefit from course adoptions in US colleges.

Publishers need every sale they can get, because in addition to the usual expenses of bringing out a book they have translation costs. Translators are not particularly well paid, receiving, if they get the minimum recommended by the Translators Association, £70 for each 1000 words. Nevertheless, an expense to publishers of £7000, say, will guarantee that a title with a small print-run will make a loss.

You can get help; for those with determination, more help is available than ever before. Arts Council England, which sponsors (along with Champagne Taittinger) the Independent Foreign Fiction prize, gives translation funding through Grants for the Arts; it has also funded tours by overseas writers. English PEN has a Writers in Translation scheme, sponsored by Bloomberg. The European Union gives translation subsidies. Various embassies will fund percentages of translation costs: for example, publishers can apply to the French Embassy for assistance from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Burgess Programme.

Know the form
You have to be prepared to put in the time, though. Government-funded organizations do not give away money whimsically. They want to see thorough justification of why publishers merit their support. ‘Translation grants are vital, but they’re very time-consuming,’ Gary Pulsifer says. Pete Ayrton claims to be ‘the only UK publisher who can understand the EU forms. Some of the dullest weekends of my life have been spent filling them in.’

The ACE application procedure involves filling in a form, and supplying a written proposal outlining the publishing plans along with the reasons why a grant ought to be awarded. An application should include the original text, with a sample of the translation, as well as a copy of the contract with the translator. The proposal id judged against the council’s five assessment criteria: artistic quality, management of the project, financial feasibility, public benefit, and meeting the aims of Grants for the Arts.

This help notwithstanding, only an estimated 3% of titles published in the UK are translations. As Geoff Mulligan, publisher of Harvill, Secker says: ‘There’s such a richness of material available to us in the English language – not only from the UK and Ireland, but from Australia, New Zealand, Africa, India and the Caribbean.’ Publishers in English language markets are spoilt, and therefore may become less adventurous than they might be.

Random House’s merger last year of Harvill and Secker & Warburg, two companies with unrivalled traditions in foreign literature, was seen by some as an emasculating move. Could Harvill, under these conditions, continue to be the company that had published Lampedusa, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn; would Secker be as likely to take on a new Böll, Eco or Grass? There is no reason why not, provided the publishers at those lists have talent, taste and energy, along with political skill to make those qualities work within a conglomerate. Independent publishers would certainly not turn down an opportunity to gain access to the greater resources of a conglomerate.

However, it is in the independent sector that a good deal of the liveliest publishing of translated fiction is taking place. The well-established list include John Calder, the veteran of avant-garde publishing; Marion Boyars, the eponymous list of Calder’s late business partner, now revitalized under Boyars’ daughter, Catheryn Kilgarriff; Serpent’s Tail; Angel Books, run by Anthony Wood, himself the translator of works by Pushkin and others; Pushkin Press, with a list including works by Svevo and Zweig; Arcadia, which did very well with The Half Brother by Lars Saabye Christensen (despite an £18,000 translation cost); and Saqi, which specializes in Middle Eastern literature. Among more recent arrivals are Bitter Lemon; Hesperus, which has brought out lesser-known works by the likes of Flaubert and Chekhov; and Maia, which had Oceans of Time by Merete Morken Andersen on the Independent longlist. Portobello will launch this autumn.Meanwhile, various bodies are promoting the cause of translation. the British Centre for Literary Translation, run by Amanda Hopkinson at the University of East Anglia, organizes seminars and events, such as a translation day at the South Bank Centre. The University of Wales houses an organization called Literature Across Frontiers. The British Council and the Translators Association are active too.Awards are a further help. They include, as well as the Independent prize, the long-standing Scott Moncrieff Prize for a translation from the French, Schlegel Tieck (German), and John Florio (Italian). The Marsh Award for Literature in Translation aims to raise the profile – one that has also been lifted by the success of Cornelia Funke’s novels – of translated children’s books, and to encourage publishers to commission more.

Considering the constraints of a competitive market, translated fiction is enjoying the healthiest climate it has experienced for many years.