A few months ago, I was asked some questions by email by a student writing an MA thesis on translation. They are the kinds of questions that come up a lot in regard to the publishing industry, so I thought they’d be worth posting here. I just gave my own opinions – what do you think?
What do you think are the main reasons foreign authors get translated into English?
Frankly, it’s often the bottom line. An author (often of thrillers or other genre fiction) sells well in their native country, and publishers here see that and want to cash in on it. That’s one reason why we don’t see as many literary works translated, unfortunately. Another reason is the topic/genre/style – if one text does well, publishers jump on any similar ones.
Do you think the setting of the novel a deciding factor in publication?
Yes, it can be. There are trends in translation, as hinted at above. For the past few years, Nordic, especially Scandinavian, thrillers have been popular. Publishers have been publishing all sorts of Nordic thrillers (and there has been a lot of Nordic crime on TV too), some of which is of dubious quality. In research that I carried out, I found that most readers didn’t differentiate between, say, Iceland and Sweden, and didn’t really care where the book came from. In some cases, they didn’t even know they were reading translations. They felt that all those countries were the same, but they liked the fact that the isolated, often cold settings seemed to reflect the crimes and the criminal mentality. Such readers were willing to read any Nordic noir, whether the books were set in Helsinki or Oslo. So I think the setting matters in a general sense, but that readers may not care quite as much as publishers think they do.
Do you think foreign authors are marketed in a different way to domestic authors?
They can be. The covers often attest to that, showing that these books are from a particular country (i.e. Nordic thrillers often have snowy, barren settings on their covers). But I also think publishers try to hide the fact of translation to a certain extent. Publishers underestimate readers and think the general public can’t handle translated lit, so they might compare X foreign author to Y domestic author in order to make the work seem more palatable. Or they might keep the translator’s name in small letters.
How important a factor is the author’s nationality?Clearly, certain countries/ethnicities are more accepted than others, and some languages are much more translated than others (French, German, and Spanish come to mind). I keep referring to Nordic lit and that seems much more acceptable to us in English-speaking countries, perhaps because Nordic people aren’t seen as too different or too foreign. Publishers seem to feel that readers might have a harder time connecting to characters in, for instance, China or Latvia or Venezuela. Again, I think the public is underestimated here.