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Lost in Translation: An afternoon discussing the art and the business of publishing translated fiction

Translated fiction opens a window onto cultures and creative techniques from across the globe, often hidden from English-speaking readers behind any number of languages. It also offers opportunities for Scottish publishers to strengthen their lists with titles that have the potential for commercial success. Creative Scotland, Creative Europe Desk UK-Scotland and Publishing Scotland invited key players in the process to gather and discuss how translated fiction can benefit the Scottish publishing sector, along with its offering to our readers.

Let’s start with the cold-water splash of reality; publishing in translation can be difficult and it can be expensive. So, why do publishers endeavour? Writer, editor and translator Daniel Hahn is addressing a room full of such publishers and other interested parties, so he draws an analogy: imagine a new publishing house is set up to cover the classics.

Growth in translated fiction is outpacing the overall fiction market year-on-year, with translated titles gradually taking an increased share of fiction sales

It includes 1984 and Middlemarch on its list, of course - but no Dickens, no Chekov, no Shakespeare. You see, the curious acquisition principle behind this imaginary list is to only publish authors who have surnames beginning with vowels. While this might sound like an absurd restriction for a business to place upon itself, 96% of the world doesn’t speak English as a first language. So, why does it seem less absurd for a publisher to draw its list from only that isolated remaining 4%?

While one side of the argument for translation centres around optimistic terms such as pluralism and internationalism, the numbers, percentages and bottom line can be equally compelling. As Hahn states, the 4% have no monopoly on literary invention, innovation or imagination. So, while a smaller publisher has no chance of securing the next Ali Smith novel, Val McDermid or Ian Rankin, they can look to that other 96% of the world where another McDermid, Smith or Rankin may be hiding behind language, their work possibly prize-winning in their own countries but as yet unknown to an English-speaking readership.

It’s with all that in mind, under the ornate ceilings of The Institut Français in Edinburgh that we have gathered to listen to this argument; publishers of translation and representatives from organisations who support the process. Our aim, to clear a path for those lost in translation but keen to publish fiction drawn from languages and countries around the world. Those aforementioned arguments are twofold but intertwined. Firstly, the cultural benefits to readers and writers of opening a window onto other cultures and corners of the earth. Then, the equally important questions around commercial viability for publishers working in fiction that has inherent challenges both in terms of editorial and in promoting often unknown authors to English-speaking readers.

Jaclyn Swope represents Nielsen BookData and follows Hahn to deliver a presentation on translated fiction sales in the UK, highlighting the welcome fact that it is showing growth in 2018.

More specifically, this growth in translated fiction is outpacing the overall fiction market year-on-year with translated titles gradually taking an increased share of fiction sales.

Sourcing and Buying Rights

Before the act of translation begins, there are challenges in sourcing and buying rights for works where samples may not be available in English and whose success in their original country does not necessarily guarantee a connection with readers and resulting sales in English language territories.

This truth is echoed by Katharina Bielenberg, who claims modestly that MacLehose’s securing of Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, a title that was transformative for the publisher, came with a bit of luck. “We didn’t know [The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo] was going to go well,” she says, while stressing that such successes allows them to buy more niche titles that might sell closes to 1,000 copies.

“When scouring the world for untranslated authors you should always ask why something might do particularly well in one country but not another.” There would therefore seem no easy answer to the huge success of The Norwegian Wood Activity Book ‘the bestselling manual for chopping, stacking and drying wood the Scandinavian way.’ In these instances of attempting something absolutely new, individual and novel, Katharina suggests, make sure you’re first, the market soon becomes saturated. This is a clear example of translation offering publishers the opportunity of something entirely original.

“What are the ideas you want to unpack, what are the ways in?” asks Canongate’s Publishing Director Francis Bickmore, discussing the same question. He notes the recent hit Convenience Store Woman from the Japanese writer Sayaka Murata. While making big sales in Japan, it was also an entirely relevant narrative for readers worldwide. It’s no longer viewed as a ‘title in translation’, simply a book that people want to read.

Canongate publish on a case-by-case basis and generally aim to invest in successful titles, but they may often still a need to build the profile of an author debuting in the English language, even after mainstream success in their own country.

An example is Niccolo Ammaniti’s international bestseller I’m Not Scared, a book that had shown up on the radar due to huge success in its native Italy, then the resulting groundswell and interest from international agents. “It was rare in this case that there was an English translation, so a number of people at Canongate could read and discuss the work before buying rights, as if it was simply an English language work.” You wouldn’t buy an English language title if only a couple of people had read it, Francis suggests, but this allowed “… that alchemy when there is agreement and [the publishing team] can all come together.”

In these circumstances, even a publisher of Canongate’s considerable size and reputation are at a disadvantage compared to huge global publishers with teams of in-house readers available across a variety of languages.

While promotion may seem a separate question, it should still feed into the decision making around buying rights for translation, Bickmore feels. He proposes a checklist to consider in such cases, involving points such as an author’s willingness to tour and ability to perform in English (all ammunition when pushing trade outlets like Waterstones for profile).

“If an author can’t come [to assist in launching their work] it’s a bit like publishing someone posthumously.” A second option however is for the translator rather than original author to tour with the work and take on the role of both champion and ambassador. Some translators now have their own reputations as a litmus test for quality work.

Sandstone Press in Dingwall have two translations among their highest selling titles. Managing Director Robert Davidson found the crime books of Jorn Lier Horst in the catalogue of Danish publisher Gyldendal, now set for a television adaptation. These have proved a great success for Sandstone and resulted in a relationship developing between the publishers.

Another of their successes is the Babylon Berlin series, now to be found on screen through Sky Atlantic. This was a title sourced through a meeting at Frankfurt Book Fair. Both are examples of the benefit international networking can offer, and while it can be expensive to travel, Bickmore notes the International Fellowship run by Publishing Scotland, where a selection of publishers are brought to the UK to meet the Scottish sector and be introduced to our writers through showcase events.

Katharina Bielenberg agrees, citing national institutions such as Germany’s Goethe Institute and the Institut Français, alongside the London-based collective of literary translators The Starling Bureau as another source of knowledge. More generally she suggests finding people you trust and whose taste you trust.

Ensuring a Good Quality Translation

The quality of a translation comes down not only to the skill of the translator but in matching the translator to the style of the work, suggests Daniel Hahn. The original language can make life easy or difficult, with a significant range of translators available for a language like French. There are of course less options when considering minority languages, something to contemplate when buying rights. Hahn finds translators through networks, saying that there aren’t very many, but it’s easy to tap in to ask for and give recommendations.

Translators will generally complete a three-page sample and then a choice will be made by a judge through a blind process, masking the identity of the translator. “You select based on voice and the marrying of what you want the book to sound like.”

Allan Cameron’s publisher Vagabond Voices often works with minority languages such as Lithuanian and Estonian, and this can limit the choice of translator and therefore potentially impact upon the quality of translation. He suggests consulting with other publishers on translators and checking with Universities about emerging networks.

A synopsis and sample translation are used for judgement. Cameron states that in the art of translating fiction, as a publisher you can often learn through loss. So he advises working in markets you know well. This is evident in the Vagabond Voices model, where they publish translations of literature from Baltic countries, an area Cameron has both experience and expertise in.

In terms of what constitutes a good translation, he proposes that it should retain the cultural context of the origin country, but linguistically and syntactically meet the target language.  A translation may have to translate a voice that captures perspectives that are different or challenging to our own.

While feeling that the ultimate duty in translation is to the original author, he feels the greatest benefactor of a translation is the language it is being translated into, not the original. English language literature has been strengthened over centuries by the influence of writers across the globe.

Marketing Titles and Finding Your Readers

Charco are an emerging publisher based in Edinburgh, specialising in Latin American fiction. There are challenges related to this, considering that, although many of their authors are award winning in their own countries, Charco are the first to translate them into English, making them debut writers in the UK. Director Sam McDowell explains that they invest in consistent quality cover design to create attractive books that appear as a set. They are looking at selling their brand, rather than the individual writers who the UK market may currently be unaware of – the reader puts their trust in the publisher.

Part of that brand is in championing translated fiction in everything they do. Charco have received awards recognition through shortlistings from the Republic of Conciousness Prize and, significantly, the Man Booker International. They also hold events in independent bookshops, sometimes with the original authors but also with their translators, when it is not possible to have the author over due to schedules or finances. They always ensure the translator has a prominent listing on the book cover and include information on their website and all marketing, all with the intention of providing a deserved profile.

The flipside of all this work in championing translated fiction is that McDowell admits it can contribute to the pigeon holing of this work under the heading of ‘niche’.  He feels strongly that translated fiction should be neither niche or segregated and suggests that in being described as such can make it difficult to market their books.

In line with Charco’s branded identity, Katharina Bielenberg from MacLehose Press believes that lists with uniformity are a good idea. As with all books, launches are a good idea – taking the authors and often the translator on the road. Pairing them with more established authors at festivals and events can help gain better exposure and reach new readers. When pitching to media – such as Radio 4 Open Book – it can be interesting to suggest authors open up more opportunities by talking about their countries in terms of travel or social issues, rather than focussing purely on the book.

When introducing an author new to English language publishing, it can be possible to have the support of the countries institute, who often have a budget to support author tours. The European Literature Network meets in London four times a year, but they also send out newsletters on international festivals, authors and translators.

Translation Slams are another option for networking and promotion of translators and their current books. Coming from the tradition of poetry slams, these feature contestants duelling to see who can best embody an author’s original voice.

When reaching new readers, MacLehose have been creative, with one example being the targeting of library book groups via The Reading Agency and the initiative ‘Year of Adventurous Reading’ - to encourage reading and discussion of translated fiction. But before this, Katharina feels she must sell titles to her colleagues first, “If it’s problematic to convince colleagues of a book then it will more than likely be difficult for booksellers to convince readers.”

The Bookseller’s View

David Bloomfield from Golden Hare Bookshop, Edinburgh: “I feel that readers are looking for books with a fresh perspective, a sense of newness. So, place and international location is very important for me when selling translated fiction.

“There is some uncertainty around having specific translated fiction sections in bookshops. Some readers will head to those sections and know what they are looking for there and some bookshops manage this very well. Golden Hare stock translated fiction in our main section of the bookshop and we don’t separate it out. We believe it makes the sell easier.” Annie Rutherford from Edinburgh’s Lighthouse Books added that “Some bookshops which have an additional table for specialist fiction and include translated titles here too.”

David suggested that there’s a lot publishers can work together with the bookseller on, to make sales easier to happen, including social media and events. “A little rapport and providing background to titles helps us booksellers create a bit of buzz in the shop and a story around the book when talking to customers. It’s important for publishers to remember that booksellers are also the audience.

“Book reviews help also, but can be hard to come by for translated fiction, so editorial pieces on the author, place or subject matter are more common in the media, and can be useful in terms of sales.”

Annie added: “Also, introductions from either the translator or a well-known author can help readers pick up and buy a title, as can cover endorsements.”

Sources of funding and support for translation

The translation process is often drawn from a rich literary landscape within a country, and it’s worth linking in with that country’s cultural institute. Lucie Campos, the lead for Literature at the French Institute in London, described how cultural institutes often have a fund for supporting literary translation.

Their aims of increasing international audience engagement with the culture - and therefore literature - of their country, often means they engage in wider activity to promote and raise its profile. Cultural institutes can often see literature having a huge potential audience, as books can travel in a way that can often be difficult for performative arts. At each cultural institute there is usually at least one person who is the ‘go-to’ for literature. Find out who that person is and let them know about your planned or existing work with literature from their country.

Want to find out more about existing funds for translation? The EU network of institutes for culture (EUNIC) puts together a handy resource each year summarising what’s out there.

What else is out there for Scottish publishers? As outlined on Publishing Scotland’s Translation page, there are several other opportunities:

- Publishing Scotland’s Translation Fund – can be handy to highlight and promote when you are out at book fairs discussing your own lists with other international publishers who may be encouraged to take on a title if they know that there is some support for translation.

- Creative Scotland’s Open Project Fund – Scottish publishers can come into OPF for the publishing of works of translated fiction. Recent beneficiaries include Vagabond Voices and Charco Press

- Creative Europe’s Literary Translation Fund – supports the translation, production, distribution and promotion of 3 – 10 works of European fiction to be translated across 2 years. It’s worth noting that the funding (up to €100,000) is not just for the translation, but also for reaching readers and groups in innovative ways. Packages score extra points if they feature less-represented genres such as children’s, YA, poetry, short stories and drama, and if they include ‘smaller’ languages outwith the big players of English, Spanish, German and French. Recent beneficiaries include Book Island, Orenda Books, Quercus Editions, Random House and Parthian Books. Find out more on Creative Europe Desk UK’s website. Kate Deans is your contact point for more information and tips on putting together the application.

Event speakers

Francis Bickmore: Publishing Director at Canongate in Edinburgh, having bought and released numerous high profile translated works across years of frontlists.
Katharina Bielenberg: Associate Publisher at MacLehose Press in London, which aims to publish the best literature from around the world, all but a very few in translation.
Allan Cameron: Writer, translator and founder of Glasgow based publisher Vagabond Voices, a publisher with an expertise in literature from the Baltic countries.
Robert Davidson: Founder, Publisher and Managing Director of Sandstone Press in Dingwall, publishing amongst other things, successful translations of Babylon Berlin and Jørn Lier Horst’s Norwegian crime series.  
Daniel Hahn: Writer, editor, translator and past Man Booker International Prize judge
Sam McDowell: Co-Founder and Director of Charco Press in Edinburgh, specialising in Latin American Fiction.

This article was published on 08 Nov 2018