Lost in Translation
When was the last time you read a book by a Chinese author? How many contemporary Italian authors have you read? Can you name the most important writers in Arabic at the moment?
If your answer to any of those questions was Erm.... , you're not alone. Of all the books published by British or American publishing houses last year, only about 2% were translations. And the "about" isn't just a matter of rounding off the figure - there is so little interest in translated works that no-one even bothers to keep statistics.
Publishers claim that publishing a translated book can cost up to £10,000 more than publishing an original manuscript. But no, don't let that kid you into believing that becoming proficient enough in a language to translate will net you millions. It's so badly paid as a profession that at this month's ceremony for the Society of Authors Translation Awards, only two of the winners were full-time translators.
The publishers' reluctance to deal with translations is situation is so bad that many countries and organisations will subsidise translations from their own countries' literature. Without a grant from the Americas Society in the 1960s, Marquez' novel One Hundred Years of Solitude would never have reached an English speaking audience so quickly. Yet even when grants are available, British and American publishers are often slow to take up the offers. The Book Institute of Poland has funded over 500 publications in recent years, but of these only ten went to the States. France and Germany, on the other hand, won 27 and 43 grants respectively.
In most countries, translated texts make up a far higher percentage of new publications annually than they do in the English speaking world. In Spain it's 28% and in Turkey 40%. And anywhere between 40 and 60% of these books will be translated from texts which were originally in English. In addition, the ever-increasing overseas market for exported books in English is already around $3 billion dollars per year.
In short, in one way or other the world is reading us. But we're not reading the world. Which leads to a blinkered cultural view in which our only impression of other cultures comes from our own media. As the director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, Amanda Hopkinson says : "We shouldn't be discussing other cultures through English culture," she says, "we should be discovering their own cultures, what they have to say for themselves."
Hopkinson however sees hope for the future, believing there to be a "groundswell of opinion from the grass roots ... which we should be taking notice of".
The 2007 Society of Authors Translation Awards and prizewinners were :
- The Premio Valle-Inclán for translation from the Spanish Nick Caistor for The Sleeping Voice (La vos dormida) by Dulce Chacón (Harvill Secker )
- The Saif Ghobash-Banipal prize for translation from the Arabic Farouk Abdel Wahab for The Lodging House (Wikalat 'Atiya) by Khairy Shalaby (American University in Cairo Press)
- The Schlegel-Tieck prize for translation from the German Sally-Ann Spencer for The Swarm (Der Schwarm) by Frank Schätzing (Hodder)
- The Scott Moncrieff prize for translation from the French Sarah Adams for Just Like Tomorrow (Kiffe, Kiffe Demain) by Faïza Guène (Chatto)
- The Vondel prize for translation from the Dutch or Flemish Susan Massotty for My Father's Notebook (Spijkerschrift, Uitgeverij De Geus) by Kader Abdolah (Canongate)
- The Risa Domb/Porjes prize for translation from the Hebrew Dr Nicholas de Lange for A Tale of Love and Darkness (Sippor Al Ahava Vehoshekh) by Amos Oz (Vintage)
- The Rossica prize for translation from the Russian Joanne Turnbull for Seven Stories by Sigizmund Krzhizanovsky (Glas)
Sources and Further Reading
KA Dilday, Lost in Translation : the narrowing of mindsPublishing Trends, International Bestsellers : translation salvation
Rudiger Wischenbart, Cultural Diversity : a pipedream?
12 Nov 2007
According to research carried out by the British Council, American and British children have the lowest international awareness among 11-16 year olds in ten countries surveyed.
The survey asked over four thousand schoolchildren with internet access in the USA, UK, Germany, Czech Republic, Spain, Brazil, China, India, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, about their attitude to international affairs and language learning. The research found that more than twice as many Brazilian (69%) and German (61%) children claimed to be interested in current international events than their American (30%) and British (28%) peers.
Brazilian children were also among the most likely to agree with the statement "it is a good idea for schools in my country to have links or partnerships with schools in other countries" even though they were the least likely to attend schools with similar links.
When asked whether they saw themselves as citizens of the world or of their own countries, most children replied the world. Only those in the three countries assessed as having the lowest international awareness - the Czech republic, the US and Britain – did they see themselves as predominantly belonging to a single country.
Fewer than three-quarters (70%) of UK school children felt speaking a foreign language would be important for their future working life, with the figure dropping to 65% in Scotland. This was in sharp contrast to the 100% of schoolchildren in Saudi Arabia, 97% in Brazil and India, 85% in China and 73% in America who replied that it would be.
This comes after last week’s news that fewer than half of English schoolchildren now choose to study a European language to GCSE level. Following a government decision in 2004, languages are no longer compulsory after the age of 14.
When British children did see a foreign language as being important to learn, French was in first place (40%), then Spanish (31%), German (8%) and Chinese (6%, rising to 9% in Scotland).
The overall results of the survey, scored on a scale of 0-7 points were :
- Nigeria, 5.152
- India, 4.863
- Brazil, 4.534
- Saudi Arabia, 3.745
- Spain, 3.296
- Germany, 3.247
- China, 2.978
- Czech Republic, 2.519
- US, 2.2210
- UK, 2.19