Richard Lea has a piece for the Guardian exploring how different cultures deal with a distinction that seems natural to the English-speaking world:
[…] But according to the writer Aleksandar Hemon, this strange chasm doesn’t even exist in the language of his birth. In Bosnian, says Hemon, “there are no words for fiction and nonfiction, or the distinction thereof”.
“This is not to say that there is no truth or untruth,” he continues. “It’s just that a literary text is not defined by its relation to truth or imagination.” When Bosnian speakers try to articulate this distinction they have to reach for awkward constructions or terms from other languages, he explains. “Some literary people have bastardised fiction into ‘fikcija’, which makes me cringe, while ‘ne-fikcija’ is even more atrocious. I would never use those words. Your average taxi driver would not understand them.”
Even someone as skilled in matters of language as Hemon’s Bosnian translator, Irena Žlof, can find themselves stumped. When Žlof was working on the Bosnian edition of The Book of My Lives – Hemon’s “first book of nonfiction”, according to his US publisher – she “did not know” how to translate the terms fiction and nonfiction, Hemon recalls. Since they “only appeared in the acknowledgments, we just cut them. When I have to describe the pieces in my book, I call them ‘true stories’ or ‘personal essays’.” […]
The split between fiction and nonfiction is equally mysterious in languages as different from Bosnian as Arabic and Gĩkuyu. According to the Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the “key word” in Gĩkuyu is rũgano – “story” or “narrative”. Rũgano is the nearest thing to fiction, Ngũgĩ explains, but it could also mean or suggest a historical narrative. “Kũgana rũgano – ‘to tell a story’ – can mean either of those, but specifically means retelling of well-known stories such as fables. The art is in the telling, not the fact of the story. The best storyteller is the one who recreates the anxiety of expectation and fulfils it.” […]
The division is just as blurred in Arabic, says the novelist Mohammed Hasan Alwan, where fiction is either hekaya (الحكاية), kessah (قِصَّة) or sard (سَرْد).
“The first two words mean ‘story’.” Alwan says. “The third word, sard, means ‘storytelling’. However, I don’t think there is any consensus on an Arabic synonym of ‘nonfiction’. I salute the English language for its ability to create simple and definitive words just by adding ‘non-’. Out of curiosity, I asked my Twitter followers if they could suggest a word. The suggestions were wake’y (وَاقِعيّ), which means ‘realistic’ and nathary (نَظري), which means ‘theoretical’. I am not satisfied with either one of those.” […]
According to the translator Nicky Harman, the English-speaking world is not entirely on its own, with the division between fiction and nonfiction mapping straightforwardly on to the Chinese xu gou (虚构) and fei [not or non-] xu gou (非虚构). But things become a little murkier as you move closer to home. German bestsellers are also divided into two categories, says the translator Katy Derbyshire, with Der Spiegel publishing lists split into Sachbücher (“fact-books”) and Belletristik – another borrowing of the French term belles lettres. But the boundary is drawn “in a different place than in the anglophone world”.
Alongside the novels listed under Belletristik, Derbyshire explains, you find autobiography, such as Joachim Meyerhoff’s Ach, diese Lücke, diese entsetzliche Lücke, or Anne Weber’s exploration of her family history, Ahnen. “There was some confusion over Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk – I’ve seen it called a novel but the German publisher calls it an ‘erzählendes Sachbuch’ – a piece of narrative nonfiction. German Amazon lists it under zoology and memoir.”
In Germany “the difference is more in the style of writing,” she says. “If it’s literary it tends to be classed as belles lettres; if its purpose is primarily to convey information it’ll be called a factual book.”
There’s lots more at the link; good for the Graun for going into an interesting topic in a fair amount of depth, and in particular for using original-language forms, including Arabic script!