Books (not) in translation

A French author writes to me to share his frustration at not being able to find a US or a British publisher to release his bestselling novel in the English language. What else could I say but: "You are not being singled out. English speakers are deprived of most of the books that are written in other languages. More books are translated from the English language than into it." Then I forwarded a link to the recently released data (pdf), which shows that of all books available to English speakers only about 2% are translated from other languages; whereas in Germany 13% of books are translations, in France 27%, in Spain 28%, in Turkey 40% and in Slovenia 70%.

The Guardian had an interesting article on the subject. In it we read that
mainstream publishers have a ready excuse for ignoring literature from around the world. "The idiotic notion is that there's enough being written in English, […] so you don't have to bother." English is so generally spoken that it's possible to read very widely and not notice that you're only reading books written in one language.

The Guardian notes that writers are beginning to realize that in order to enter into the English language world of books they must create in the English language:
Creative writing schools in the UK and America are now seeing writers already published in their own languages enrolling for writing courses in English, a solution to the problems of getting translated.

there's even a danger that the dominance of English-language publishing is putting other languages and literary cultures at risk.

I don't see it in quite as dark colors.  I recall this quote I read somewhere in my youth: "The boundaries of our language are the boundaries of our world." Books in other languages will continue to be printed, though perhaps not translated. In my view the real losers are / will be all mono-language speaking readers who are / will be deprived of glimpses into other cultures via books written in languages other than their own.


  1. I agree with the last paragraph. We should not just restrict ourselves to English books alone - there are many good books in other languages that we may never read if we just know English alone. I have read some books translated from English into other languages, and books translated from other languages into English. For me, it makes a difference, because although the plot is still intact, the literary magic of prose is often gone. Each language is unique and has a different magic, so to limit yourself to just English is really too sad.

    Reading books of other languages provides greater variety, and also allows us to broaden our view of the world. I'm not saying everyone should learn multiple languages, just that I agree that we should not limit our world.

    And, I don't really like the idea of writers who have already published in their own languages learning English just to solve the problem of being unable to get their books translated. So,they're going to translate it themselves? It may be just me, but i seriously doubt the authenticity in translated books, like i said earlier.

    Of course, I'm still not against translating books. If it means we can share a good story among people who speak different languages, why not? I guess it's just a question of whether you value the literary "magic" of other languages as well as that of the English language.

    There are many people who don't have the time to learn more than one (English) or two languages, and I don't believe they should be deprived of good stories too. That's where translation comes in.

    The English language is not the only language in which really great books are written in. I'm very sure that there are hundreds, maybe thousands of books in all the other languages around the world that deserve to be shared with everyone, but might never be if publishers refuse to translate them.

    I guess that's all I have to say. :)

  2. Bravo Jack King! A smart piece. As a writer and translator who lives in Spain,
    I know that there are many new worlds available to he who dares to look, and yet for an English or American speaker it is all too often the norm not to know more than one language. I cannot speak about England but in the States, a person
    who graduates with a bachelors degree may have only the most rudimentary knowledge of a second language, and this person could quite likely pass their adult life without ever pursing another one. It is a cultural attitude, forged by geography, supported by an hysterical nationalism, whose underlying assumption is that other languages and cultures are a pointless barrier to understanding. But who cares? Americans read less and less each year, anyway, and they hardly know who their own best writers are. Go to France if you want to learn about American literature!
    Cheers GJ