Translated Fiction, a barrier?

Not so long ago I was at a translation event where a book publisher explained during a panel that the words ‘translated fiction’ or the appearance of a ‘translated by …’ on the front matter of a book have a significant effect on sales. Sadly, it seems that these words often scare people away and create a barrier that makes the book appear inaccessible. Why is this? In this post, I am going to discuss the potential reasons for negative effects on sales thanks to the appearance of words such as ‘translated fiction’  or ‘translated by …’ on book covers, and what we can do to dispell the myth that this renders a book inaccessible.

The first prejudice that these words have the potential to create, is one that translated fiction is worse than fiction in its source language, with the idea that a translation can never be as good as the original. Translation theorist, Schleiermacher stated that a translator either brings the text towards the reader, leaving the reader in peace and disrupting the source text, thus making the translation ‘fluent’ and therefore not loyal to the original. Or, on the other hand, he suggests that the translator brings the reader towards the text, leaving the text in peace and disrupting the reader, meaning that the translation is more faithful but sounds awkward in the target language. The idea that either way, something is ‘disturbed’ (the reader or the text) by the act of translation, creates a negative connotation. If we were to follow Schleiermacher’s theory, this means that a translation can never be ‘good’, as it is always either ‘unfaithful’ to the original, or ‘un-fluent’ in the target language. Schleiermacher’s theory considers that something is always disturbed or disrupted within the translation, with either the reader or the text having to become up-rooted and uncomfortable. Ideas such as this, contribute to the idea that translated fiction is second class to fiction in its original language, either not being close enough to the original for want of fluency, or being incorrect or ‘unreadable’ in the target language, through an attempt to remain close to the source text. According to this theory, something, either the reader or the source text, is always ‘disturbed’. However, this is more often than not, not the case. Novels are consistently translated within a happy medium, disturbing neither the reader, nor the source text, and offering a new audience a wonderful translation into a new language that does justice to the original.

Another prejudice that can arise from the discussion surrounding translated fiction is the Anglo-centric idea that English literature alone is enough. This comes from the long issue of Anglo-centrism that exists in the Anglophone sphere, with ideas such as the ‘literary canon’ and the unwillingness to learn about new cultures at the forefront. Many Anglophone nations are not often open to new cultures, yet continue to impose an Anglophone culture and Anglophone literature onto others. This is reflected in the reaction to translation, it is something ‘secondary’ because it is not ‘original’ English literature. In her essay on literary translation, Kate Briggs says: 

“Writing a translation can be a means to interrupt, to stall and expose the small-mindedness of the [idea that the English speaking world is the world]. It doesn’t stand in for and is not equal to the world; its literature is not literature, its philosophy is not philosophy. The translations we do read are their own necessary reminder of this – of everything we are not reading, and has yet been written and is being read by so many others, vast populations of other readers and writers, all the time and everywhere else.”

Translation reminds us that a world exists outside of English literature. The words ‘translated fiction’ or ‘translated by…’ should not appear as a barrier, but as a door, a door to those other works of literature, those other readers and those other writers.

In bringing up the discussion of the words ‘translated by’ on book covers, we can’t help but consider the implications of naming a translator vs not naming a translator on the front of a book. Knowing that the appearance of the words ‘translated by’ on book covers makes them appear undesirable and inaccessible, many publishers choose not to name translators on the front matter of their books. As a result of this general negative reaction to the idea of translated fiction, translators are being hidden, being made invisible, in order to actually sell the books. It is of my opinion that translators should always be named on the front cover. Always. Translators work laboriously to take a book that they loved reading in one of their languages, rendering it available in another of their languages, so that others can enjoy the book as they did. Literary translators are working hard at eliminating this Anglo-centric idea surrounding literature and the English literature canon, bringing new cultures, different ways of writing and fresh ideas into the English literary world. They work hard to do this and deserve to be credited. But how do we tackle the stigmas and stereotypes that surround translated fiction? We can only continue to promote translated literature as important and as valid as literature. 


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