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Translating books into English: no longer a foreign land?

By Ellen Northrop

When Swedish author Stieg Larsson wrote his Millennium Trilogy, beginning with the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he did what few other authors have managed to do – propel a book whose original language wasn’t English into the top 20 best-selling books world-wide.*

At Cambridge Publishing Management, we love working on translations. Recently, we completed yet another successful translation project with Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Pink Floyd All the Songs.

Translated works as a whole, however, still only represent a small proportion of publishing in the UK and research into translation statistics has remained vague. In 2012, Literature Across Frontiers conducted an analysis of data sourced from the British Library’s British National Bibliography to provide some insight into publications that have been translated.

Key findings include that the number of books translated into English oscillates at around 3 per cent, which is low in comparison to other European countries. In 2011, the actual figure for the UK was 3.16 per cent, with Germany at 12.28 per cent, France at 15.90 per cent, Italy at 19.70 per cent and Poland at 33.19 per cent.

The global dominance of the English language goes some way to explaining these comparatively low figures, as well as the fact that many books published in other countries are mass-market fiction and non-fiction translated from English. Another crucial reason, though, is that publishers are less willing to take on the additional risk that comes with promoting and selling unknown authors.

Literary translations fair better, peaking at 5.23 per cent in 2011. In 2016, an article by The Guardian stated that ‘translated literary fiction is selling better on average in the UK than literary fiction originally written in English’. This suggests that we, as readers, are actively choosing to read translated works. While general translations grew 53 per cent from 1990–2012, literary translations again beat this figure, growing by 66 per cent.

Research conducted by Nielsen BookScan supports these figures of growth with a study on physical book sales in the UK between January 2001 and April 2016. It found that translated fiction sales almost doubled over the last 15 years, from 1.3m to 2.5m copies, while the market for fiction as a whole fell from 51.6m in 2001 to 49.7m in 2015.

Fiction is the genre that represents the largest share, with 67 per cent in 2011, followed by poetry at 13.12 per cent. The Guardian has included works of translation in its ‘Best Fiction Books of 2017’, including Such Small Hands by Andres Barba, translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman, as well as Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft. This highlights the diversity in the literature that was celebrated last year.

In conclusion, then, these studies point to a positive future for translations in the UK. Showing growth and an increasing readership, these statistics should hopefully encourage publishers to take any associated risk. Translation allows small and marginalised voices to be heard and shared around the globe, making it such an important area to cultivate within publishing.

*For those of you who like statistics, it came 17th in the top 100 best sellers between 1998 and 2010.