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How books get lost in translation

Sunday 25 January 2015

Ann Morgan

Anglophone readers may be growing more open to global literature but large parts of the world remain out of bounds

Translated fiction seems to be going through something of a purple patch in the English-speaking world. Last year saw a string of high-profile launches and impressive sales figures for works originally written in other languages. While Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgaard and the elusive Italian novelist Elena Ferrante won ever more glowing praise, Scandi crime continued to storm the bestseller lists. Jostling in the queues at the numerous UK bookshops that offer late-night and breakfast openings to accommodate the buzz around new novels by writers such as Jo Nesbo, you might be forgiven for thinking that all barriers to British people reading foreign-language literature had been swept away.

Even the traditionally pitiful statistics for the number of texts making it into English look less bleak than they once did. In 2013, a report by Literature Across Frontiers, a network of organisations promoting European cultural exchange, revealed that 4.5 per cent of fiction, poetry and drama (and 2.5 per cent of all books) published across three sample years since 2000 was translated, thereby showing the much-quoted figure of 3 per cent to be an underestimate as far as creative works are concerned, albeit a slight one. And a few months ago, LAF director Alexandra Büchler told the Guardian that the volume of literary translations had increased by 18 per cent over the past 20 years. The evidence suggests that English speakers are embracing more narratives from elsewhere than ever before.

Yet in recent years there has also been much debate on the insularity and narrowness of anglophone literature and its readers and writers — a criticism that Nobel judge Horace Engdahl cited in 2008 as one of the main reasons there has been no laureate from the US since 1993. Indeed, some commentators have even warned of a slide towards homogenised, faceless literature, as western readers opt for the exoticised familiarity of the “global novel” in preference to the challenges of understanding works that are distinctly local in their concerns. Xiaolu Guo, the Chinese-British novelist and film-maker, notes the erosion of Asian literary traditions as authors seek to emulate more potentially lucrative Anglo-American forms. . . . So what’s going on? Is it possible that anglophone readers are growing simultaneously more open to global literature and more parochial in their outlook? Part of the answer comes from putting the statistics in context. While 4.5 per cent may be better than 3 per cent, it is still a long way behind the proportion of foreign-language works published in most other European nations — the 45 per cent of books released in the Netherlands, for example, 70 per cent in Slovenia and one-third of the literary output in France.

What’s more, the pool of countries represented in that 4.5 per cent is relatively small. Only 22 of the books published in the UK and Ireland in 2008 were translations of works originally written in Arabic, for example. In the same year, there were just 17 trans­lations of Portuguese-language literary works published. That’s 17 books picked from the literary output of Portugal, Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, East Timor, Cape Verde, São Tomé and Principe and Equatorial Guinea, not to mention the behemoth Brazil — and that was a marked improvement on 2005, when there were just 10. And though well over 100 trans­lations from French flood on to the British market each year, the majority of these come from nations with strong publishing and distribution networks, such as Canada and France. Franco­phone African nations rarely get a look in.

The upshot is that there are many countries with work by only one or two writers available to buy in English and plenty that have no literature at all represented in the anglophone market. Indeed, if you wander into the majority of bookshops in London, you’re unlikely to find works from more than 70 countries (slightly more than a third of UN-recognised states) on the shelves. Even the most wide-ranging online retailers will feature plenty of gaps in their global spread, with books from the most powerful western nations far outstripping the offering from further afield.

On close inspection, much of the world literature available to anglophone readers is rather less diverse than it might first appear. As South-Korean-born Austrian writer Anna Kim once described it to me, authors who succeed internationally tend to be those whose work demonstrates “the right amount of foreignness”.

Away from the Anglo-American market, it’s a rather different story — as I found in 2012, when I set myself the task of reading and blogging about a book from every country. In the absence of commercially available alternatives, I was obliged to confront an array of works that challenged the literary and cultural conventions I was used to — often with only a minimal layer of mediation between me and the original text, as a considerable number of the works I read were in the form of unpublished translations. The novel I obtained from the tiny Comoro Islands off the southeast coast of Africa, for example, was dug out from the hard drive of an academic in Vermont who had translated it years before for fun; a translation of the Panamanian El caballo de oro was emailed to me by the novel’s author, Juan David Morgan (no relation); and when it came to São Tomé and Príncipe in the Gulf of Guinea, nine volunteers in Europe and the US — among them celebrated translator Margaret Jull Costa, whose work includes the novels of Nobel Prize laureate José Saramago — banded together to produce an English version of the Portuguese-language short-story collection especially for me.

Such literary off-roading was eye-opening in more ways than one. Exploring beyond the limits of the pool of carefully sifted texts containing that elusive “right amount of foreignness” for the western market, I was obliged to confront the question of what could cross between cultures; of whether stories written outside the global conversation could have anything to say to me.

Some of these encounters were sources of great delight. When, for example, I had the chance to read an unpublished translation of the award-winning Mozambican novel Ualalapi by Ungulani Ba Ka Khosa, I was thrilled not only by the towering figure of Ngungunhane — a tragic hero as memorable as Lear or Okonkwo — but by some startling imagery. Being one of the few English-language readers to explore it felt like peering through a keyhole into a locked garden of astonishing blooms. Its difference to books I’d read before simply heightened my enjoyment.

There were times, however, when not being the reader the writer imagined me to be made for an uncomfortable experience. Faced with characters hurling insults at a corpse at a funeral, for example — as happens in two of the short stories and novel extracts in Voices from Madagascar, the anthology I resorted to in the absence of a single translated novel from this nation of 23m people — I was unsure how to react. The footnotes told me the practice was a tradition with its roots in the historic rivalry between clans and the text implied that it could even be considered a way of honouring the dead, but it was nigh-on impossible to banish the outrage and shock evoked by actions so at odds with the customs around death I had been raised with.

Similarly, when reading about a wedding night where the bride is forced to submit at knifepoint in the fantastical narrative of Camara Laye’s The Guardian of the Word, my Guinean choice, I struggled to make sense of the scene: my conditioning predisposed me to regard it as abuse, while the textual cues — at least as far as I could discern — suggested it was a symbolic ritual, and as such not intended to provoke my anger and indignation.

Yet more problematic challenges came in the shape of books founded on value systems at odds with my own. Several of the works from the 77 countries that still have laws against homosexuality, for example, left me in the margins of the story, fuming over homophobic slurs that may well have struck many of their target readers as unremarkable. . . . Sometimes the book form itself proved limiting. In Griots and Griottes: Masters of Words and Music, Penn State University academic Thomas Hale recounts an anecdote about a recording session he conducted in the palace of the Zarmakoy, the ruler of the Dosso region in Niger, in 1981. Instructed to switch off his machine, he waited while the Zarmakoy told the griot — a skilled storyteller trained to remember and recount the community’s history and epic tales from childhood — to alter the direction of his narrative so that he would perform the version the leader deemed appropriate for the foreign researcher.

Such alterations are bread and butter for griots, who tailor their narrations according to who is paying them, forever weaving in new jokes and references. Preparing a written version of such a performance for unseen readers in other times and places — as Hale did, spending 10 years working with scholars in Niger and the US to translate a two-night performance of The Epic of Askia Mohammed by griot Nouhou Malio — is in many ways counter-intuitive because it fixes something that is intrinsically fluid and contingent on who is listening. Reading Hale’s published translation, I couldn’t help being conscious that what I was getting was a snapshot of a moving, changing creation — a story that may well have played out quite differently (or not at all) had I been there in person.

Of course, such examples are extreme. In reality, the idea of a sharp divide between global literature and local works is problematic, suggesting as it does an inner cluster of books that everyone in the international club has read and an outer circle of texts beyond the members’ reach. The reality is much more partial and approximate. Stories travel as people do: haphazardly and often unpredictably, sometimes cropping up where you least expect them.

By the same token, references do not divide neatly into global and “other”. The novelist, critic and translator Tim Parks has written in these pages about the careful weaving of English culture into the works of Indian writers Salman Rushdie and Arundhati Roy, which, he says, ensures that western “readers need never fear they are too far from home”. But the truth is you’ll find such references in much literature published in the subcontinent’s 22 other official languages — from allusions to Hardy in Malayalam classics such as MT Vaseduvan Nair’s Kaalam to allusions to Christie’s auctions in Shanta Gokhale’s Marathi-language Crowfall. Such inclusions, like the mentions of Ikea and Sex and the City that appear now and then in Arabic-language fiction, are not, by and large, cynical ploys to woo the global audience, but records of reality in the societies portrayed. Though they originated elsewhere, these things are no more out of place than references to pyjamas or curry in a British novel.

Seen from this perspective, the profusion of works that need relatively little cross-cultural interpretation is less evidence of writers’ efforts to crack the global market than a reflection of life as it is lived in many parts of the world. Yet they should not be mistaken for the full story. Beyond the offer tables and online bestseller charts are many other narratives: books that take readers away from what they know, challenge the assumptions that underpin life elsewhere and present a strikingly different world.

Ann Morgan’s ‘Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer’ is published by Harvill Secker on February 5

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2015.

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