The Popularity of Translated Fiction.

John Self at the Graun shares some good news:

There was a buzz in the room at this year’s International Booker prize ceremony in May, as some eye-opening – and encouraging – numbers were shared by the organisers. The figures, from a broad survey of book buyers, showed that sales of translated fiction increased 22% last year, compared to 2021 – and that it is most popular among readers under 35, who account for almost 50% of translated fiction sales. This is much higher than the 31% share of overall fiction sales bought by these readers – and the figures have grown year on year. For translated fiction, the future looks bright. So much so that in some cases books by certain publishers have become a “cultural accessory”. So how did it become cool, and which are the names to watch out for?

Undoubtedly the International Booker prize itself has boosted the profile of fiction from around the world published in English. Fiammetta Rocco has been the prize’s administrator from its launch as an annual award in 2016, and since then its winners have enjoyed enormous attention and sales boosts. […]

Frank Wynne, whose translations of novels from French and Spanish have won many prizes, agrees. “Our generation [born in the 1960s] suffered from the notion that translated fiction was like castor oil: not very pleasant but probably good for you. And it shouldn’t be good for you, or bad for you, or anything else. What people are looking for is to engage with a book.”

Of the eight winners to date, six have come from independent publishers. Wynne is confident that “the huge contribution made by smaller publishers in the last 10 or 15 years” is part of the picture. Young editors and translators today are “in the vanguard”, as Rocco puts it. “They’re the scouts, they bring the stuff in.”

One of the most significant young publishers of translated fiction is Jacques Testard’s Fitzcarraldo Editions, which since its inception in 2014 has published one International Booker prize winner (Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft) and three Nobel literature laureates: Tokarczuk, Annie Ernaux and Svetlana Alexievich.

So what is Fitzcarraldo’s secret? “First and foremost, it’s literary quality,” says Testard. “Also, we exist on the margins; we have the luxury of being able to be interested when we want to be, rather than having to keep up with so-called hot books.” Reader loyalty is helped by the fact that this is “very much a publishing house that publishes authors rather than books”. […]

Testard thinks “Brexit is in there somewhere. It might not be a direct correlation. But lots of young people voted to stay in the EU. Maybe being interested in cultures outside the UK is cool.”

Stefan Tobler, the founder of Sheffield‑based independent publisher And Other Stories, agrees. The majority of the books he publishes are in translation, including Boulder by Eva Baltasar, translated by Julia Sanches and shortlisted for this year’s International Booker prize. “Younger readers clearly don’t have the barriers and hangups of older readers, and that’s true about translation, queer writing or other previously marginalised authors,” he says. “It does feel like the desire to read beyond barriers is partly a movement against those Brexit barriers the older generations voted for.” […]

Speaking of Murata – or of Mieko Kawakami, whose novel Breasts and Eggs, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd, is another favourite, and whose work is striking for its portrayal of women in modern society – it’s impossible to talk about translated fiction without considering Japanese fiction in particular. Rocco points out that young people “don’t seem to be reading the languages that were classically regarded as the drivers of the canon”, that is, western European languages. In fact, of the 2m books of translated fiction sold in Britain last year, she tells me, “the single most popular language – just under half a million volumes – was Japanese” (not including manga), “followed by South Korean”. (Anton Hur, a Booker-longlisted translator, recently wrote that after The Vegetarian won in 2016, “all of a sudden, Korean literature was seen as edgy and fierce”.)

Lucy North, an established translator of Japanese, is not surprised. Why does she think Japanese literature is so popular? “Japanese writers excel at short fiction. And it tends to be quiet and undramatic and often nonjudgmental. There’s a feeling of criticism and oppositionality in it, but it’s veiled. So there’s that, with a kind of mystery, that’s appealing to young readers.”

North says Murata’s Convenience Store Woman was a watershed, “after which lots of other women writers’ works started flowing in. It’s an amazing time to be a translator,” she adds. “Editors are much more open-minded than they were before.” Wynne agrees. “I remember an editor saying to me at a party: ‘What do you do?’ And I said I translate fiction. And he said: ‘Oh, we did a translation once. It didn’t work!’”

One publisher at the forefront of Japanese literature is Pushkin Press – owned and run since 2012 by Adam Freudenheim. Pushkin published David Diop’s 2021 International Booker prize winner At Night All Blood Is Black, translated by Anna Moschovakis, about a Senegalese soldier in the first world war and his descent into madness. Like Fitzcarraldo, it is small enough to follow its own taste – “We’re not just looking at the market and reacting to it,” says Freudenheim – so it tends to drive publishing patterns rather than follow them. Pushkin has been in the vanguard of the recent boom in Japanese literature, from locked-room crime such as Soji Shimada’s The Tokyo Zodiac Murders, translated by Ross and Shika Mackenzie, to its Japanese novella series including Kawakami’s Ms Ice Sandwich, translated by Louise Heal Kawai, launched in 2017 and about to begin a second run.

Freudenheim adds: “It’s an enormous country with a long-established literary tradition – Kawabata, Mishima, Tanizaki – [so] you already have that bedrock there. But there’s something quite strange and unusual about a lot of Japanese literature.” He points out that while a lot of its themes are related to western concerns, this is often seen through “a slightly different lens”, for example in the case of women’s rights. […]

But there’s another element to the appeal of some translated books. Instagram and TikTok are visual media, and the books that catch people’s eyes on the thumbnail of a scrolling feed are those with the most striking design. Curiously, though, the publisher of translated fiction with the greatest cachet among young readers is one that has given its books the plainest – yet most distinctive – look imaginable: the solid blue-and-white covers of Fitzcarraldo. The contents must stand up, of course: “I really like everything [they] publish,” Spencer says, while Atkin’s TikTok offers a video on where to start with Fitzcarraldo (Beginner, Intermediate and Advanced). But the austere designs do add a special quality: “The cover is so iconic now,” Spencer says, “and if you’ve got one on your Instagram photo of your picnic rug, it’s immediately a kind of cultural accessory.”

Rocco recalls seeing two graduate students at an event at the Southbank Centre in London for this year’s International Booker prize, “and they both had Fitzcarraldo books, which they were carrying around in these macramé bags so that you could see the blue cover. They were sort of totemic signs, a way of communicating to other people that you were ‘blue team’!” (Non-younger readers, like me, may recall a similar chic to Picador white spines in the 1980s.)

Of this already iconic design, Testard says: “We wanted to publish with a series look, and if you publish books of sufficient literary quality, you might get people following the press and picking up books without knowing who the author is.” He adds, however, that the coolness of Fitzcarraldo “is not going to make any difference whatsoever to what we do. Cultural fads are cyclical, [and] in three years’ time we might be out of fashion.”

I was glad to see that “fads are cyclical” quote; too often these things are presented as a new level humanity has reached. Still, it’s good news (even if covers have excessive influence), and I’m always glad to see people reaching beyond the familiar. The article is followed by a list of “Five authors to look out for”: Mieko Kawakami, Sang Young Park, Samanta Schweblin, Benjamín Labatut, Dorothy Tse, and Édouard Louis. Which comes to… six authors. Nobody expects the French Inquisition!


  1. Trond Engen says

    Encouraging, indeed, but a couple of questions;

    1. Is the trend international, i.e. for world-wide sales of translations into all languages, English-language, i.e. for sales of translated literature in English, or British, i.e. for sales in Britain of translations into English?

    2. How much of the increase is shipped back to the country of origin? There’s a generation (under, say, 35) that hardly have read anything since childhood in any other language than English and who might well prefer English translations to originals in their native language.

  2. David Marjanović says

    might well prefer English translations to originals in their native language

    I still find that hard to imagine.

    Have the translators at least finally figured out that, for example, freshwater doesn’t mean “fresh water”?

  3. Is the trend international

    I was wondering that myself.

  4. Trond Engen says

    David M.: I still find that hard to imagine.

    I personally know young people who says so. I shouldn’t have claimed that it’s universal for the generation, but it’s a thing.

  5. In the Netherlands, sales of translated fiction are decreasing. One of the reasons is that young people prefer to read English books in the original language. English books are also cheaper because they do not fall under the Fixed Book Price Law.

    I got this information from this pay-walled article: In the article, a literary agent says that the Netherlands is the biggest non-English speaking market for English books.

  6. Trond Engen says

    Or anything except mother tongue in English translation because it’s cheap and easily available. I meant to mention that, but forgot on my way to the extreme.

  7. “might well prefer English translations to originals in their native language

    I still find that hard to imagine.“

    Very very applicable to India, for example. Where it’s quite common to find reading in one’s native tongue quite difficult, because schooling is in English.

  8. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Up to maybe 14 years of age, I read all science fiction I could get my hands on in Danish translations, also Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Chesterton, Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Woodehouse, Conan Doyle. But then I ran out of translations and had to get used to reading stuff in English.

    And now I feel I understand the English original at least as well as a translator can express it in Danish. It’s also a question of rhythm. puns and implicit assumptions where for instance the characterization of a character is weaker because it plays off stereotypes that I know from reading in English, but which are different in Danish culture. So even if a translation exists, I prefer to read the original.

    (And of course half the Physics textbooks at university were in English, and 95% in CS. That was around 1980. The mathematicians were still writing course notes in Danish, but once you got past B.Sc. stuff, Springer Lecture Notes reigned supreme. I think I remember home-brew course notes for Construction of the Number System and for Integral and Measure Theory [both 4th year] in Danish).

    (And then, as DM intimates, there are the cases where you have to mock-back-translate something to English to figure out that frisk vand should be fersk vand. That interrupts immersion).

  9. Christopher says

    According to this article, at one Swedish bookstore, where half the books are in English, there is a shelf of Swedish books translated into English. So that seems consistent with what Trod Engen said.

  10. There’s a generation (under, say, 35) that hardly have read anything since childhood in any other language than English and who might well prefer English translations to originals in their native language.

    Trond, I am confused. A generation of whom? Are you saying that, for example, a Norwegian would prefer to read a Norwegian book in English?

  11. @Christopher – not necessarily. There is a large population of immigrants/expats in Stockholm that never learn Swedish, or who at least speak better English than Swedish, and who constitute a natural market for translations of the local literature into English. Doesn’t necessarily prove that native Swedes are reading Lindqvist in English.

  12. Trond Engen says

    Yes, Norwegian literature translated into English, I say “a generation” but I don’t mean more than “some young people now say they prefer”.

    I don’t really know if it’s to be taken at face value. Maybe it’s that they wouldn’t know much Norwegian literature, since their media are international, and they explain it as a language preference. Also, when you shop online, the translation is usually much cheaper. Also also, when everybody moved from paper to Kindle (or whatever), Norwegian books were not easily available. So there may be many reasons, but the result would be the same.

    The piles of Norwegian literature in English in big bookstores is, I believe, mostly for tourists. These young people wouldn’t go to a physical bookstore anyway.

  13. Maybe Germany is different, but I see a lot of young people buying books in bookstores here. I at least assume that they’re not all buying text books for school or gifts for their grannies. I also see a lot of translated English books, from literature to genre to technical books down to thrillers and self-help woo. Maybe Germany is just a bigger market, making it worthwhile to publish translations and making the average reader less reliant on English.

  14. David Marjanović says

    As of 20 years ago, German was the world’s top target language for translations. I expect it still is.

  15. @DM, yes. When Alexievich won the Nobel, many Russians (including myself actually:)) were quite perplexed, because they never heard about her. And as (I suppose) she was identified as some sort of opposition (not Russain opposition, but not opposition in Western or pro-Western country…) on the one hand, and because of what is the Nobel prize on the other many said that it is somehow follows from that they never heard about her that it is a political move. I don’t know if the logic is correct, and I also suspect that politics played a role, but when some German (who moved/repatriated from Russia, pro-Putin, anti-refugee – it seems more pro-Putin than anti-refugee) began insisting that she’s “nobody” I considered sharing a list of her German translations.

    (The guy became obsessed with politics: on a single page of a forum he frequented I saw his 1. визжат 2. вопят 3. кричат, about human rights groups, liberals and opposition, I don’t remember in what order).

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