Thinking about Books in Translation

It is a cliche, but the book market is dominated by English language fiction. But after ten years of living in the United Kingdom, I realized that here it is even more so. Actually, my Spanish teacher made me realize it when she asked me if I read any books by Spanish-speaking authors recently. I drew a blank.

When I lived in Poland I read a lot more diversely. I would of course read Polish authors, but also Spanish, French, German, and Russian on top of the vast amounts of English language fiction. So one sunny Saturday morning I started wondering what happened, that in recent years I read pretty much only English books, with occasional Polish ones when I get it from my mum. 

And I think I solved the mystery. That probably was solved by many people dealing with the book market before, but I shall remain in my bubble. I think it all comes down to cost/efficiency, the inclination to expend as little energy as possible when doing something. And I mean it both on my side but also on the publisher’s side. 

In Poland both English and other language books require translation. It is an added cost, but it is in a way added equally to all books. Whereas in the UK this cost is non-existent for the majority of books since they’re already written in English. You just select, edit, publish, promote and sell. So why go to all the bother of adding another time-consuming and costly step in the form of translation. Not to mention the risk. The readers bred on the diet of English fiction, revolving in the quite specific cultural environment become a lot less tolerant of other ways of looking at the world and describing it. Hence every book presenting other cultures, and I do consider language as one of the foundational ingredients of a culture, is a huge risk, because it may be rejected by the readers like a transplant. 

This way the only books that get the benefit of the added effort of translations are books that either already achieved bestseller status in their language environment. In countries like Poland, the publishers are a little more adventurous because the translation cost is almost a default situation. That’s one of the reasons why I read a lot more diversely when living there, the books were available. 

Another aspect is that of the reader because I cannot deny that if one looks one can find books in translation, there are some publishers specializing in this area (Europa Editions, Peirene, And Other Stories, to name just a few). So the books, if one wants to are available. But then comes the habit of reading within English-speaking culture. For me it got to the point where either I was reading what I know’ or going to the extremes, picking fiction from completely different cultures. I ignored the middle ground of other European languages, which felt so familiar while I was in Poland. 

What made me realize I miss it was the gifts from my mum. We agreed that she will buy me books in Polish or translations from languages other than English. What got me thinking and sparked this post is Pascal Garnier’s How’s Your Pain?. Because the approach to the world and story-telling in it is so not English. It is a very different type of sensitivity. A different way of experiencing and describing the world. It felt strange at the beginning, but then it felt like meeting a long-lost friend. I missed this variety, I missed not knowing how the author will go about telling the story. 

I became very comfortable in the world of English language fiction. I know what and where will happen more or less, it feels so familiar. I can not only imagine the cities, countryside, buildings, but I most probably have seen them in the movies, if not live. But shift it to France and I had to reach to a completely different set of mental pictures, having been in France a few times I could reach to some of the memories, and it is a very different world from the UK. In subtle but important ways. 

That sense of familiarity versus strangeness is what for me compounds the problem because we do tend to stick to what’s familiar. Coddled in the familiar world with little exposure to other perspectives makes it difficult to be adventurous. While in Poland I was all the time exposed to different perspectives, even the English one was different, so I was more open to trying other things. Now it takes conscious effort, and I know many of you make this effort. I promised myself I will too, this year I want to read at least one book a month in translation. 

There is also another aspect of that. The language itself. For me English is a second language, I can always retreat into the safety of my mother-tongue (as much as it deteriorates the longer I live abroad) and a lot fewer people will understand me, it gives me privacy and safety. How weird it must be not to have that comfort. It is a thought that Olga Tokarczuk also touched on in The Flights. This retreat to a safe space of less known language, that English-speaking people are deprived of. But also having by default two perspectives on the world, rooted in those languages. I know, you cannot miss what you don’t know, but it is an interesting thought.

One thought on “Thinking about Books in Translation

  1. Pingback: How’s the Pain? / Jak się ma Twój Ból? – Pascal Garnier – bookskeptic.com

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