Thursday, July 24, 2008

To be translated or not to be translated

It is time for the Booker Prize longlist in a few days. In the meantime, here’s a link to the Man Asian Literary Prize longlist, the equivalent of the Booker Prize for Asian literature. I must admit that I don’t know anyone on that list.

The Man Asian Literary Prize aims to bring new Asian authors to the attention of the world literary community and to facilitate publishing and translation of Asian literature in and into English. The novels submitted are yet to be published in English. Among the authors longlisted for the prize (21) there are Indians by the dozen, only three Chinese and four Filipinos (!). Lately there has been a lot of talking of how to bring Chinese literature to world attention, for example if awarding the Nobel Prize for Literature to a Chinese author would do the trick.

I wonder, though, if the problem is really the peculiarity of Asian literature or rather the lack of an industry of translations into English. I stumbled across an article from El Pais on the subject of translations from Spanish in the USA. No less that 15% of the population of the USA is hispanohablante, so you would expect books translated from Spanish every day and a reasonable market for literature in Spanish. In reality, from 2000 to 2006 only 13 Spanish writers of fiction have been translated into English. Latin Americans were not lucky, either: only 12 Cubans, 5 Argentinians and only 8 Mexicans have reached the bookshelves of Uncle Sam. I can hardly believe these numbers! The author only hopes that the sudden success of Junot Díaz (who writes in English, anyway) and Roberto Bolaño will boost translations in the country. If this is the situation for Spanish translations in the States, I can imagine how little room there must be for authors who write in Chinese, Italian or Finnish. I wonder if the situation is similar in the UK and I would like to compare statistcs with Italy, although I already know that the situation here is way better.


  1. Stefania, I suspect that "El País" might have underestimated the number of Spanish authors translated into English, but the article was interesting and undoubtedly "true" overall in terms of the general trend of US readers to be unaware of certain countries' literature. Bolaño is deservedly making a big splash from beyond the grave right now, but good luck finding many Americans acquainted with Javier Cercas or Vila-Matas to name just two. Of course, I have the opposite problem with all these "greatest books" lists floating around in the US and UK media (blogs included)--I refuse to believe that England is responsible for over half the world's classics, although that's what some of the lists would seem to suggest. Ciao!

  2. I'm American and I can attest to the paucity of translations here. I just discovered your blog a few days ago, and saw under All Time Favorites a book called "Balun Canan" by Rosario Castellanos. This book is considered a classic, but it's not in any of the bookstores where I live, and I live in Los Angeles! The market exists for Latin American literature, especially Mexican literature, but the industry hasn't figured it out yet.

  3. @R-Lo: sorry my comment was not posted. Bolaño is not enough, more authors from the rest of the world should be acknowledged in the English-speaking world.

    @ Anonymous: Yes, "Balun Canan" is one of my favourite books and a classic of Mexican literature. I bought it while I was in Spain after a reading advice by one of my teachers at university. The problem with that book is that despite being so good it's almost unknown outside the lovers of Latin American literature. By coincidence I had to study it for a university course while I was studying in Edinburgh. I was the only one in class that owned an edition in Spanish. The others were borrowing from the library because it was impossible to find in Spanish (and maybe in English too). I've never seen it in Italian bookshelves either. That you can't find it in Los Angeles, so close to the Mexican border, it's another red herring.
    I hope to see more of your comments now that you have discovered my blog! :-)