Offshore and Aloof

by Eric Dickens

I read somewhere recently that between 2% and 3% of books published in the UK are translations. Whatever the exact statistic, this compares poorly with other European countries. Visits to London
bookshops reinforce this impression.

The sluice is one-way. Cultural pressure from the English language
means that everything from Shakespeare to Harry Potter ends up in
translation on bookshelves in countries whose literature we blithely
ignore. Owing to English being the language of what was the British Empire and, nowadays, of the most powerful nation in the world, the USA, translations from English dominate in bookshops all over the world.

But let's restrict ourselves to the local continent. Firstly: there
is no such thing as ‘European Literature’. Recurrent ‘greats’ from
that continent, e.g. Ibsen, Chekhov and Catullus, get retranslated
umpteen times. But what people are writing now in the EU countries
where English does not dominate, and the rest of Europe, hardly
features in British bookshops.

British publishers cannot, with a few noble exceptions, read foreign
languages. Instead, they have readers. The same people who recommend books to be translated may also double up as the ones who want to translate them. This can lead to quirky publishing choices and a guild mentality.

One source of information for British publishers is national literary
promotional organisations. But these tend to plug the current and the photogenic, rather than giving people insights into the whole gamut of their national literature including classics, modern classics and contemporary works.

Most such national literary promotional organisations produce
periodicals in English. These range from quarterly glossy magazines
packed with information to newssheets. And the internet is playing an increasingly important role. But the periodicals tend to be available only on subscription, which is preaching to the converted. And you can't chance upon them in Waterstone's. Nor can you fully trust their objectivity. By their very nature and sources of finance, they are in effect propaganda organs and serve national interests rather than literary ones. When I on occasions write for such periodicals, I feel a little uncomfortable about
the fact that I, as reviewer, am expected not to write too negatively
about books. The pressure to promote rather than assess is subtle.

One admirable project to promote older books, and involving former
Soviet bloc countries, was the Central European Classics series with
Timothy Garton Ash as editor. But this Oxford-based initiative stopped after publishing only around half a dozen books from three or four countries.

Literary translators are often told what to translate, on a "take it or
leave it" basis, either by the national promotional organisation or the British publisher. In my opinion, many literary translators themselves could make sound judgements and suggests books with a professional eye. Instead, the translator becomes a drone rather than an inspiring mentor and is not credited with having much common sense with regard to judging the commercial chances of individual books.

Literary agents do not appear to know what to do with translators and shun them as clients. Obviously, translators who are native speakers of English, and who know a foreign country and its language through and through, could work with, or as, literary agents. But translators need to be paid on top of what goes to the author, and this always strikes both agents and publishers as paying twice. No one really wants to foot the translation bill.

Another unfortunate tendency, one that disadvantages literary
translators, rears its ugly head in the world of the theatre.
Established British playwrights sometimes do something which I regard as amazingly unprofessional and dishonest. They take a foreign play, get someone else to translate it from the original language (because most British authors cannot read works in any foreign language), then tweak it around a bit, with or without the help of the stage producer. So what was a translation now becomes an ‘adaptation’. The miserable drone translator is pushed out of the limelight and is obliged to remain anonymous, while the celebrity sticks his or her own name on the cover. Yet they haven't translated anything. They have taken the fruits of someone else's hard work, skills and education unacknowledged, and handed themselves the
laurels after adding a few expletives to enhance the contemporary flavour, and cutting out all the too philosophical bits. If you did that with Shakespeare, there'd be riots.

I have been relatively lucky with my own translations, which involve an unusually small national language. There have been delays, teething troubles and so forth, but I have at least managed to publish one novel, and one book of stories, translated from that rarest of European languages, Estonian, which is spoken by only one million people. A further manuscript of a postmodernist novel from that language is with a U.S. publisher, and I am working on the translation of yet another novel, magical realist this time. Three different authors are involved, aged 85, 60 and 24; I do not want to make it look as if Estonia, however small, is a one-country author.

Some far larger countries in Europe, such as Ukraine, have no novels in English translation issued by a British publisher. Ukrainian has about forty million native speakers and there are several internationally known authors - internationally known, that is, except in the UK. Ukrainian novels appearing in English are mainly published in North America where there is a large Ukrainian exile community. Tractor novels from provincial England, or second generation Holocaust ones from America, and written in English, do not count in this context. I mean books by Ukrainians themselves, not about them, or using them as extras in an exotic landscape.

Despite my own luck, it is hard to break through with literary
translations from ‘funny little languages’ in Britain, whether spoken by one or forty million people. Although the two translations I managed to publish so far were actually reviewed in significant British publications such as the TLS, LRB, plus in several of the national dailies, and by people such as Tibor Fischer and Doris Lessing, they have sold abysmally and, to all intents and purposes, sunk without trace. The literary climate is largely to blame. If translations don't sell, publishers are reluctant to promote all but the stars from any given country, and this creates a vicious circle.

Translating directly from the original language also gives food for
thought. British publishers have been known to commission books to be translated via a third language. Unlike those reviewers working for Le Monde Friday literary supplement, British reviewers rarely tell us (and probably neither know nor care) whether a book is translated directly from the original, or not. This does matter. Each language inserted between the original and the end translation acts like a prism or filter, where mistakes can be compounded or whole paragraphs simply missed out because the intervening translator chose to do so. So the end reader never knows what he or she is missing.

Like publishers, British reviewers, appear to know next to no foreign
languages. They wait until the book comes out in English, or at least
reaches the uncorrected proofs stage, and cannot compare the translation with the original, or detect when the translator has taken liberties. Most novels translated into English become one-offs, at the mercy of the whims of reviewers who are largely ignorant of the country the book comes from, or the whole oeuvre of the author involved. I have, on occasion, written to carefully selected and identified book-page editors at British dailies and weeklies and tried to broach this topic; but they simply refuse to enter into discussion.

The TLS habit of reviewing untranslated books written in Spanish,
French, German and Russian is also curious. Given the poor knowledge of languages in Britain, who is expected to go out and buy these books?

There appears to be no mainstream, generalist, British literary
periodical which publishes poems, stories, novel-excerpts and
literary essays in translation on a regular basis. Translation
Studies, and the various guides and handbooks generated by this
subject, are legion, whilst translations of the actual literary works
themselves remain rare. Availability at Waterstone's and other major
bookselling outlets nationally is also a crucial factor.

The term ‘literary translation’ in a British context has an
unpleasantly fetishist ring about it. Other European countries don't shout about translations. A large percentage of books appearing in the shops are automatically translations. In the Netherlands, where I live, one chain of remainder bookstores, De Slegte, with branches all over the Netherlands and Flanders (i.e. Dutch-speaking Belgium), thrives on the fact that what are often excellent books, but have enjoyed too short a shelf life, end up there; so readers still have a chance to pick them up.

Must Britain remain offshore and aloof with regard to literature from
neighbouring countries and further afield? Given the power of the English language, enhanced by erstwhile British colonialism and present-day U.S. world dominance, Britain has a long way to go before it becomes truly postcolonial in its attitudes to literature written by Continentals and other un-English beings.

Eric Dickens
First published in magazine ‘Author’