It is a running joke in the anglophone literary world that noon on the day that the Nobel prize for literature is announced is an annual moment of collective shame. News of the first Belarusian laureate in 2015 was greeted, according to one writer, by the sound of 10,000 reporters Googling Svetlana Alexievich – though, as Ms Alexievich is herself a distinguished journalist, reporters were on this occasion relatively well placed.
When the French novelist JMG Le Clézio took the medal seven years earlier, there was no such luck: his novels were nowhere to be found. His most recent translator, Alison Anderson, reported that it had taken multiple rejections on both sides of the Atlantic before his bestseller, Onitsha, was picked up by an American university press. It took a year after the win for Penguin to scramble two of his works into print in the UK as modern classics.
In many cases the time lapse has been more egregious still. The novelist Julian Barnes spoke this week of his pleasure at discovering Lucky Per, by the Danish Nobel laureate Henrik Pontoppidan. Thomas Mann and the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács were among the admirers of Pontoppidan’s masterpiece, which was published in eight volumes between 1898 and 1904 and translated several times, but not into English until 2010.
This lamentable situation is slowly improving, with the Bookseller reporting last year that sales of literature in translation had surged to 11% of the UK fiction market, decisively breaking the 3% rule – the percentage long seen as an indicator of the sector’s impoverishment.
It is a move in the right direction, which is due partly to a new generation of outward-looking independent presses, who were responsible for all but two of the 13 novels on this year’s International Booker longlist. Fitzcarraldo Editions, the highbrow publisher beloved on Instagram, had three titles on the list. It has published 58 books by 23 different European writers since it launched in 2014 – nearly half its total – with three more due out in the spring, translated from Swedish, Spanish and Italian.
But the good news comes with several caveats. First, the huge uptick in sales was largely driven by the boom in Manga graphic novels. Japanese literature accounted for 60% of the market, with French, Polish, Italian and German taking only 19% between them in the next four places.
Second, these headline figures still do not mean that UK readers are getting instant access to European literature. Only in rare cases of “event” publishing – such as the latest novel from Michel Houellebecq – are novels published simultaneously in English and their language of origin. The delay is not only down to the time required for translation, but to the willingness of publishers to make the commitment in the first place. It took a decade for The Years, the masterpiece of last year’s Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux, to make it into English. Though this is an improvement on the century-long wait for Lucky Per, it still means that anglophone readers had to wait far longer than those in other parts of Europe to join the conversation.
This week, the Guardian launched its digital Europe edition. As the UK’s relationship with the continent moves into a healthier place, the exchange of imagination and ideas is increasingly important. Up-to-the-minute translated literature has a vital role to play.
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