I was happy to see The bookstorefrom Translation Focus published a few weeks ago, because reading fiction in translation is a way to access the greatest literary writing available in the world. To me that’s a very attractive prospect, but the UK publishes proportionately less translated literature than most European countries and as a result readership and sales lag behind our neighbours. It’s great that the direction of the journey of these sales seems to be changing in recent years, but there’s still a long way to go. I have often wondered: is our limited readership the reason for the lack of published translations, or in fact a symptom of it?
To try to get to the bottom of this puzzle, in 2021 I conducted postgraduate research at Oxford Brookes University with the aim of identifying the challenges of publishing translated fiction in the UK . I looked at what was blocking the routes of translated titles to readers and identified ways to optimize the UK market for translated books.
Perhaps most importantly – readers being the most essential component of the book trade, yet little research has been conducted on their perceptions and attitudes – my findings have refuted assumptions that UK book buyers are not interested in translated fiction.
My research has focused on fiction translated from Spanish, but most results are applicable to fiction translated into the UK from any language. My investigations have involved reader surveys, surveys of industry professionals, analysis using metadata provided by the British Library and sales data from Nielsen BookScan, and in-depth interviews with translators , employees of UK and overseas publishers, booksellers and librarians.
One of the main conclusions was that one of the obstacles was the lack of communication between sectors and departments. This has led policy makers to act on often inaccurate assumptions about the market and other players in the translation process. This means that decisions are highly idiosyncratic and dependent on individual beliefs and experiences – less than ideal in an industry notorious for its lack of diversity. A great opportunity for development in the translation process is therefore to improve communication between departments, houses, translators, booksellers and readers.
Perhaps most importantly – readers being the most essential component of the book trade, yet little research has been conducted on their perceptions and attitudes – my findings have refuted assumptions that UK book buyers are not interested in translated fiction. I found that UK readers are not significantly less likely to read translations compared to the global average. In fact, in a public survey, 93.81% of readers said they had ever read a translated book, and only 1.03% said they would not be open to reading in translation. Additionally, when asked how their interest in reading a book would be affected if it were translated from another language, 73.2% said their interest would not be affected, 20.6% would actually be more interested in reading the book, and only 6.2%% said they would be less interested. Promising figures indeed! Narrative content and plot have proven to be more important to readers than a book’s status as a translation, but translation quality remains important, so matching a suitable translator to a book is essential.
In determining who publishes translated fiction in the UK, I found that between 2000 and 2021, a quarter of the fiction translated into Spanish in the UK was published by the Big Five publishers, while the majority (62 %) was published by independent publishers. , highlighting the important role indies play in promoting translated fiction.
Communication between independent international publishers is therefore essential; however, overseas independent publishers have reported difficulty trying to meet and connect with suitable UK publishing houses whose style aligns with their own, with opportunities to do so often limited to attending trade fairs of the book. A Valencia-based rights agent told me he thought UK publishers were more interested in selling rights than buying them. Another freelance Spanish publisher told me that he often uses guesswork to determine the type of literature UK publishers are likely to be interested in, which means their efforts to sell translation rights cannot be targeted and are more likely to be vain. Recent virtual and hybrid events have improved this situation by facilitating communication between international publishers and making it more accessible to companies with fewer resources.
For publishers with small budgets, the importance of funding cannot be overstated. Better knowledge of the funding available to support literary translation would make the prospect of translating fiction less daunting by showing how financial risks can be mitigated. The lingering consequences of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic will potentially limit access to EU funding and impact attendance at LBF and international book fairs, respectively. However, guest of honor positions, such as Spain’s in Frankfurt later this year, provide access to translation rights and draw international attention to foreign fiction.
In deciding how books are presented to booksellers and readers, UK publishers’ sales and marketing teams have an important task in trying to boost discoverability, particularly as marketing and advertising budgets for the most translated titles—aside from a handful of stars like Jo Nesbø and Karl Ove Knausgård—are not great. Until publishers are more convinced that translated fiction deserves greater marketing spend, marketers may continue to consult campaigns for translated books in their original languages and territories, which provide market research free and a plan to work from.
Booksellers, of course, play a big role in the success of translated titles. RCW agent Laurence Laluyaux’s observation of the “Anglo-Saxon oddity” of treating translated books as a genre is an interesting takeaway from our Translation Focus. (In a dataset provided by the British Library, 162 translated books had their genre categorized as “Translations into English.”) This matches my research which found that the optimal place to locate translated fiction in a bookstore is among general fiction, as opposed to separate sections “Translated Fiction” or “World Literature”. Most readers expect to find translated books among genre fiction and helpfully, most retailers currently locate them there. Another opportunity is to place translated titles in prime display positions in stores alongside well-known authors (think Elena Ferrante, Haruki Murakami, Jo Nesbø, Olga Nawoja Tokarczuk and Vasily Grossman). Positioning “if you like this English-speaking author, you’ll like this international one” allows the greatest number of readers to discover it, because those who are not looking for translated fiction are more likely to come across it and give it a try.
I hope these findings will be useful in shedding light on how professionals working in the book industry approach and view translated fiction. By shedding light on readers’ under-researched opinions, this research should lead to more informed decisions about how to effectively bring translated fiction to the readers who will appreciate and benefit from it the most.
I condensed these conclusions from a 15,000 word dissertation. If anyone is interested in more information on any of my research, please feel free to email me at [email protected]