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Writers in translation hit the headlines

31 May 2010

Stieg Larsson notwithstanding, what are the chances of a translated author selling well in the big English-speaking markets of the US and the UK? The received wisdom has always been that translations into English are tough going financially, with it proving virtually impossible to make the figures work without an English-language publisher on both sides of the Atlantic to pay for the costs of translation.

Khaled Hosseini, an Afghan, did find a large audience, but he wrote, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns in English. Meanwhile, Pascal Mercier, a Swiss philosopher, wrote Night Train to Lisbon in French, only to sell two million copies in Germany alone.

The acclaim of the recent 2010 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which went to the French writer Philippe Claudel for Brodeck's Report, translated by John Cullen, do show that there is increasing interest in the more literary end of the translation spectrum, but it's noticeable that most of the publishers with books in contention are small presses. The Prize has in fact been won two years running by Maclehose Press, part of newcomer Quercus, which has also benefited from the ongoing sales bonanza of the Larsson books.

Translating out of English is another matter and there are a number of internationally bestselling American and British authors, such as J K Rowling and John Grisham, who are translated all over the world. With the spread of English as a world language though, more and more people want to read these bestsellers when they first come out, in English, so the translators have to work fast to make sure that the translated edition does not lose its market.

Novelist and translator Tim Parks produced an interesting article recently in the Observer, in which he argued that translators were not given their due: 'Writing my own novels has always required a huge effort of organisation and imagination; but, sentence by sentence, translation is intellectually more taxing.'

Harvill Secker and Waterstone's have teamed up to launch a new prize for young translators. This first year the language is Spanish, entrants have to translate a short story by Matias Nespolo and the winner will receive £1,000.

If you're interested in world literature and would like to think about these issues, have a look at & Other Stories, a publisher and book club which focuses on writing from across the world.