At London Book Fair: Translation Markets’ Expansion, Challenges

In News by Olivia Snaije

‘A major shift in English and American culture’ toward translation is examined in a session at London Book Fair.

Speaking at London Book Fair in a seminar on growth in translation interest are, from left. Daniel Hahn, Ka Bradley, Peter Bush, and Carlota Gurt. Image: Publishing Perspectives, Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

‘Find a Balance’
In a London Book Fair panel today (April 19) on literary translation in the Anglophone market, this year’s Ottaway Award-winning  translator and author Daniel Hahn moderated a session called Literary Translations: From 3 to 6 Percent—and Now What?

Hahn was joined by: 

  • Carlota Gurt, a translator from English and German to Spanish
  • Peter Bush, who translates from Catalan, Portuguese, Spanish, and French to English
  • Ka Bradley, an author and Penguin Press commissioning editor, acquiring for Penguin Classics, Penguin Modern Classics, and Allen Lane

The session—based on a widening interest in translated literature in English-language markets beyond the proverbial 3 percent—was supported by the Institut Ramon Llull, which promotes Catalan literature.

As an introduction, Hahn read a few statistics about Catalan literature, as “a turbo-charged” indication of progress made in the field: In the 1980s, 49 works were translated from Catalan to English, while in the years following 2010, 230 works were translated.

“The general atmosphere around literary translation has been transformed,” Bush said, adding that in the 1990s he’d mentioned to the Society of Authors that there should be something about literary translation at the book fair and they’d asked him, “Why would we do that?”

Today, there are so many training schools, mentorships, and young graduates who think about becoming literary translators, Bush said, that “There has been a major shift in English and American literary culture.”

In contrast, Gurt said, in Catalonia and in Spain in general, 24 percent of literature is in translation, but “I don’t think it’s healthy for us to rely so much on foreign authors. The flagship authors of publishing companies are often foreign, and we should find a balance between them and our own production.”

Moreover, she said, the translations are always from the same languages—French or English for example. “Cultural imperialism is everywhere.”

‘Unfounded Caution’

On Tuesday (April 18), The Bookseller’s Tom Tivnan reported a 48-hour preempt by Sceptre for Bradley’s forthcoming novel, The Ministry of Time, a strong contender for London Book Fair’s book of the fair.

Before moving to Penguin, Bradley was at Granta. She recalled that Granta’s imprint Portobello Books, which specialized in translation, was eventually absorbed into Granta with the sense that translated literary fiction had become more mainstream and that it was profitable, “before there was unfounded caution that it wouldn’t sell.”

Bradley said that editors publishing translated titles are younger and coming up through the ranks at publishing houses.

She referred to Nielsen’s 2022 Books and Consumers data on readers of translated fiction in the United Kingdom, which showed  that surveyed translated fiction readers in 2022 were generally younger than 35.

Bradley said that at Penguin Classics, editors were looking at increasing translations in lesser-known languages in the United Kingdom. Most of the editors in the 1970s and 1980s spoke only European languages.

“We didn’t have Arabic, Chinese, or French literature from North Africa,” she said. “Can we describe [what we have] as ‘classics’ if we’re not translating ‘world classics’? We need to address the gaps that were left off historically.”

‘Drive, Energy, Imagination’

The session’s panelists agreed that marketing literature in translation is a persistent problem, and that small independent presses often do a better job.

Such publishers, Bush said, “are often single individuals who have lots of drive, energy, and imagination. Bigger publishers struggle to find imaginative ways to present their books in translation. Publicity departments focus on the big writers.”

Bradley said that big publishers have brilliant publicity departments working on broadsheets that have been used over the years. “But to reach new markets,” she said, “you need to look elsewhere. Old campaigns have trouble finding readers.”

In looking at ways in which interventions make a difference to a book’s visibility, Bush recalled how the creation of the Institut Ramon Llull in 2002 and the watershed moment in 2007 when Catalonia was the guest of honor at Frankfurter Buchmesse contributed to its literature “skyrocketing” in terms of translation. “Translators from Catalan are sort of activists. But obviously in the framework of Ramon Lull they offer fellowships for editors and publishers to meet agents and writers. They participate in fairs throughout the world and finance translations.”

An interest on the part of readers can be sparked by the broader historical context, Bush said, citing the Catalan push for independence becoming international news and fueling an interest in reading about Catalonia.

Funding and translation samples are extremely helpful, said Bradley, who described being an editor in an acquisitions meeting and what could benefit a pitch for a translated book.

Hahn stressed that networks of trust must be built up between editors and translators, saying that translators can introduce younger translators to editors, as well.

From the audience, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, a translator of Polish to English, said that while the landscape has changed, almost all translated literature continues to be published by small independent publishers.

People in the United States and United Kingdom still not reading enough literature in translation, and compared to situation when she was growing up, she said, and there are far fewer children’s books in translation now.

Shouldn’t reading literature in translation begin during childhood?

More from Publishing Perspectives on translation and translators is here, and more on London Book Fair, which runs through Thursday (April 20) is here.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.