Literary Translation – Part I

Published 1st November 2011
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Literary Translation – Part I

It may not surprise you, considering that I work in the translation services industry, but I spend a lot of my time thinking about translation. When I do my mind inevitably wanders to the wonderfully diverse, and at times controversial, world of literary fiction translation.

Unfortunately, despite a recent surge in the popularity of Swedish crime fiction in the UK (Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell, Jo Nesbo & others) the US and UK have quite a poor track record when it comes to publishing translated foreign literature. 3% of around 200,000 US publications are translated. The UK has a similar figure for adult fiction and less than 2% for children’s fiction (Tintin anyone?).

Conversely there has been a big rise in the number of US publications being translated and sold abroad. For example Stephen King & John Grisham for starters, which can be attributed to the rise and rise of American popular culture, which turns ‘foreign rights…into a profit center[sic]’. Emily Williams’ very interesting blog at provides an in-depth analysis of literary translation into English for the American market.

The importance of literary translation

To me, literary translation is exceedingly important for a number of reasons but the central one is this. It pulls down language barriers and spreads cultures across the globe in a format that is endlessly creative, forever changing and occasionally divisive…

Daniel Hahn, an award winning author and literary translator is quoted as saying ‘Translation is one of the tools we need to make sense of the world beyond our field of vision’. What better way than to delve into to a world that would otherwise be shielded from us. Philip Pullman is the author of ‘His Dark Materials’ which has been translated into 37 different languages. He adds his view with respect to children’s foreign literature. ‘If we DON’T offer children the experience of literature from other languages, we’re starving them. It’s as simple as that.’

Language translation in a literary context can be tricky and quite contentious. Do you have a favourite author in translation?

Do you wonder how it compares to the original?

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