Found in Translation
Literature in translation is meat and if you are not reading them, you are missing out on a whole new world. Around 60% of all translations are from books originally published in English, but only 3% of books in a foreign language are translated into English. A glaring disparity without a doubt and one that smacks of arrogance? Or is it that translated works do not sell? Murakami, Paulo Coelho, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, T Steig Larsson are writers whose books sell in their millions. When I buy a book, the thought that never crosses my mind is whether it is a work of translation. I am happy as long as it is in English. All my favorite books were originally written in a different language. And yet there are readers who avoid reading translated works as they have no faith in the fidelity of the translations. They are more worried about what they might lose in translation, but what about what they might find. French philosopher and writer Gilles Ménage coined the phrase ‘les belles infidèles’ to suggest that translations, like women, can be either faithful or beautiful, but not both. I have friends who complain about poor translations, but seriously, how can one tell if you do not know the original language well or not at all. Yes, the subtle nuances of the original language may be missing and translations will always come out second best, but they still deserve to be read over an average writer whose books are bought only because that writer’s work is in English. Imagine being able to read the best works of the world’s six thousand odd languages!
There is another point. Among translators, it is accepted that the best translations are produced by persons who are translating from their second language into their native language. For example, The Alchemist was originally written in Portuguese, then translated into many languages, including English. Now imagine a translation into Hindi from the English text, and not from the original Portuguese. Also, while it may be easier to translate works originally written in English, imagine translating an original text from Swedish to Hindi. How many persons are proficient in the original language and the second language. A dilution of a dilution? Perhaps. And then you begin to wonder, is it worth reading? It is, to a point. And this is where English readers have an advantage over say someone reading in Hindi or Swahili. And that is why you shouldn’t miss out.
UNESCO’s Index Translationum is a regularly updated list of books translated in the world i.e. an international bibliography of translations. Browsing through its lists, you will find that the English reading world trails the rest of the world by a distance when it comes to reading literature in translation. Germany publishes the most translations. In fact, the top ten countries are all European except for China. The US comes in at 13, the UK is at 24. Agatha Christie is the most translated author. Shakespeare comes a distant third followed by Enid Blyton! Some translation trivia. The Bible has been translated into a staggering 2527 of the world’s 6800 languages. Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio is the most translated work of fiction in the work having been translated into between 197-200 languages according to the Wikipedia. Among books published after 2000, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner has been translated into 44 and 42 languages each. Among non-English books works, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince has sold the highest number of copies at over 200 million.
I like the acceptance of translated works into mainstream awards instead of having separate awards for translated books. The Man Asian Literary Prize is a trendsetter in this regard as it awards the prize annually to the best novel of the year by an Asian writer that is either written in English or translated into English. In 2012, the winner is Korea’s Shin Kyung-sook for her book Please Look After Mom, a book translated into English from Korean. The biggest challenge is what to read, for how many names are familiar other than a few famous. But once you make a beginning, you can always find a way. Prize winners, book reviews, even most online book retailers have sections dealing with translated works. But don’t read translated books if you are looking for culture trips. Books are always about stories and writing, not anthropology. New experiences maybe, but not some sort of Lonely Planet guide to the Indian or Swedish mindset. Good books are good books, no matter what language it is written. Without literature in translation, our lives would be so much poorer. Imagine what we would be missing and not even be aware of it. Imagine missing the genius of a Marquez or Murakami. What gems are out there waiting to be uncovered?