Books in Translation

If you read my about page you know that I’m not an English native speaker. Why is this relevant? Well, it is for the theme I want to discuss today.

Where I come from, the majority of books in the market are translated. From the huge universe of translated books in the bookstores, most of them are translated from English. Furthermore, it is a true universally acknowledge (at least between readers from my country), that our national writers are not very popular. It’s not that they are not well-known or that they don’t make it to the top best-selling lists in bookstores. It’s that people usually prefer to buy translated books over untranslated (aka, native language). Why? I can tell why I preferred to buy translated books before I started to read directly in English: #1 Our national authors were too expensive, considering there was no translation cost. #2 Small offer, less variety. From what I can gather, both the price and the themes/genre variety are issues that Portuguese publishers and authors are succeeding to improve.

Now that you have some background info about my experience and overall acceptance regarding translated books, let’s move on to the actual topic of this post. Not too long ago I came across a post in Publishing Perspectives that says:

Last year during International Translation Day, Alexandra Büchler from Literature Across Frontiers provided evidence that translation makes up only 2.5% of all publications in the UK, with a figure of 4.5% for literature. The United States, a nation which prides itself on its immigrant history, is no better with a mere 3% of the market. By comparison other countries far outstrip the UK and US in this regard; in Poland a staggering 46% of books published are titles in translation, in Germany over 12%, in Spain around 24% and in France around 15%. (source)

This stopped me immediately. From a reader whose 60% of her owned books are translated, I find it very odd that other readers will have some reluctance to read translations. Therefore, I tried to come up with some reasons to justify the fact that US and UK readers tend to avoid books in translation:

1. Themes: If you look carefully, you can see a small pattern of book themes for each country. For example, when I think of Scandinavia and Northern Europe countries I always associate them with crime novels. Could it be that you are not particularly fond of the themes and genres explored in foreign books? OR, Could it be that you think that the variety and offer of translated books is not good enough when compared with US and UK authors?

2. Fear of translation mistakes/reading flow: One of the reasons I decided to start reading in English is bad translations. I got tired of buying books with so many mistakes and inconsistencies. You don’t often get those awfully edited books, but when you do, it’s impossible to enjoy your reading. So, could it be that you avoid translated books because you’re trying to avoid this situations? It can be really annoying.

3. Price: This is something I would need time to do a quick check (yeahhh, having time even for this is being an issue lately), but sometimes translated books can be a little more expensive, since the publisher needs to pay a salary to the translator (of course!). Could the price factor be an influence?

These are the reasons I can come up with for the moment. I would love to have your feedback about this. Have you ever thought about this issue? Do you ever think about whether a book is translated or not when you’re buying? The fact that the book is translated or not has any influence in your decision to read it? If it does, why is that? Let me know all about it! 😉

If you want to know what other topics people are discussing in the book blog world,check out Oh Chrys! blog for weekly updated lists.

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9 thoughts on “Books in Translation

  1. Very interesting post. I like to read books from lots of countries, so I read in translation. I do wonder if it might be one of those instances when publishers claim there’s limited demand, whereas that might in fact be dictated by limited supply! if there was more supply of translated books people might read more, but publishers won’t increase the supply of these books unless they think they’ll make good profits, because of the costs you mention. The popularity of Scandinavian crime dramas on TV meant they were prepared to translate those books as there was a clear demand. Its a shame – I think readers are more adventurous than we’re given credit for, but publishers have to be prepared to take a risk.

    • I think you nailed it with your comment. It might very well be a situation dictated by the limited supply, same as what was happening with my country’s national authors. They were poorly advertised and there wasn’t enough investment in them (which was ridiculous). It all comes to the business aspect of things. Even though I understand why it is important for publishers to minimize the financial risks they’re taking when they publish, I’m also sad because there’s a lot of great things lost because of it.
      And yes, I also agree that readers are more adventurous than they’re credit for. I honestly don’t understand why it would be hard to find reviewers whiling to help advertise a foreign book (because you can’t say the author’s name? come on…). And the argument about it being “too literary” and “too serious”, really makes me a little angry. It’s almost like saying that readers can’t handle it or are too lazy for it.

  2. Another really interesting and thought provoking post Pat. I read translated books without thinking twice about it. I think that maybe that is because because I like all sorts of different genres though. I feel most translated books (or at least the ones I see in shops) are adult literature rather than YA. If you know any great translated YA books, be sure and let me and I’ll add them to my list.

  3. I honestly really never thought about this before. There are so many books written in English that I just don’t feel the need to seek out translated books. I can only think of one book series that I’ve read that was translated (it was actually translated by the author) and I didn’t even know it was translated until after I had already read the first book. It was translated well, so I didn’t even notice. I guess I would be leery of reading a translated book because I would be afraid that the translation wouldn’t be done well. Otherwise, I have nothing against translated books, but I just don’t see them that often!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  4. Huh I didn’t know that about your national writers not being popular or that people would prefer to buy translated books. Why are the national authors more expensive? Especially if there’s less variety and the books are not that popular? This sort of reminds me of how in Lebanon people speak English or French more than Arabic at times even though Arabic is the national language. I wonder if the same could be said of the books that get published there.

    I find it a tad astonishing too that our figures are only 3% of translated books. But I also see evidence of this every day. The only book I’d read that had been translated was Arcadia Awakens by Kai Meyer. You honestly don’t see very many translations here. Not sure why. Too many books already in the market? Risks on the part of publishers? Do they not sell well here? Or is it the cost of translation and knowing that English is so widespread that publishers can be arrogant about not pubbing many titles from other places?

    1: No, I would answer no to both of your questions. One of my favorite books that I’d studied in school is from Roberto Bolaño, and his book is heavily suffused in Chilean history. And Arcadia Awakens? Definitely has a lot of the same themes that I see in typical PNRs that are pubbed here. I think it has more to do with familiarity – look at the NYT Bestsellers list; sometimes publishers don’t want to take a chance on debut titles because they want established people like Sanderson who will land a title in the #1 spot his first week because of his name.

    2: This I can identify with. One review I’d read of Arcadia Awakens suggested that she couldn’t deal with the writing; she didn’t know if it was due to the translator or if it was like that in German, but the short sentences bugged her. And in a sense, the translated work sometimes seems very different to me than the work itself. Have you ever looked at the different versions of the Bible? It’s remarkable how one word can change the entire meaning of a sentence.

    3: I haven’t noticed any price differences? But then again I also don’t know of many translated books (seriously I think publishers also don’t tend to publicize a lot of translated books either. It’s a cycle through and through.)

  5. I recently started reading translated books and I actually really love that they have themes and ideas and ways of writing that you don’t usually see in books from the US and the UK. I could see that throwing some people off though, since they can be very different 🙂

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  8. I can only recall three translated books I’ve read: The Neverending Story, the Bible, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. What was interesting about the last, is that I got it from the library. I hadn’t finished it when I had to return it (someone else requested that particular copy). I checked out a different copy, and discovered that the translators were different. Wow, what a difference! An entirely different feel! Bible translations can have similar effect, as the translators seek to achieve certain goals such as a word-for-word translation or a thought-for-thought idea, or putting the meaning into contemporary language. Hopefully, the ideas are communicated clearly and accurately, although differently.

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