Literary translation for the UK market – overcoming the challenges

literary translation, publishing translation, book translation

I had the pleasure of attending the London Book Fair this month to learn more about the publishing sector and, in particular, about the market for translated books in the UK.

In recent years there have been many translated books in the UK bestseller lists. Authors such as Elena Ferrante, Haruki Murakami and Karl Ove Knausgaard are all driving sales, with latest figures suggesting that translated fiction represents 6% of adult fiction titles.

However, although there is a lot of interest in translated fiction, the publishers I spoke to at the London Book Fair share the following key challenges when trying to reach a larger UK market:

Names – author and character names are a challenge for readers of translated books. There is a reluctance to buy books by authors whose names are difficult to pronounce; perhaps our general lack of languages skills in the UK is a contributing factor. Similarly, if readers are unsure of character names they are often put off buying a translated book.

Translators can’t change author names to make it easier for UK readers, however in some cases it might be appropriate to make character and fictional place names a little more reader-friendly. Audiobooks have also increased in popularly in recent years and offer many advantages for the book translation market. Readers don’t need to worry about being unable to pronounce a name with an audiobook; instead a voice over artist can do it for you!

Marketing and promotion – another reason that translated books don’t get the wider readership they deserve is because of the challenges in how they are marketed and promoted. UK booksellers can be very selective about which books appear on their shelves, and unfortunately the independent booksellers – who might differentiate themselves with a wider selection of translated titles –can struggle to promote the new titles in the same way as their larger competitors could.

Lack of internal language skills – along with the majority of the UK population, most publishers don’t speak other languages. In order to commission a book; a sample translation needs to be completed for them to read it. This can create more barriers in beginning a translation project, such as costings for a sample translation to be completed.

In an interview with the Guardian, Anna Webber, at United Agents, says:

“There are very few people [in publishing] who speak languages other than English, so they have to rely on readers’ reports. That’s why unless something is surefire hit internationally, where you have a lot of publicity and success in other countries, people are very cautious. Understandably – I wouldn’t take a book myself if I couldn’t read it. But the problem is that not many publishers speak foreign languages … This is why I have to stick to representing a low number of foreign authors – about 10% of all the writers I work with.”

Funding opportunities are available to assist with the translation of books, however these are often only available if the publisher can show proof of purchase. Naturally the publisher doesn’t want to purchase a book until they have read it, so it can be a bit of a Catch 22. Information on funding opportunities can be found here.

While there are challenges, without a doubt there is a lot of interest in translated books. Readers who first pick up a bestselling translated book, such as one of the many Scandinavian crime novels, are becoming more adventurous and are seeking out different authors.

The publishers I spoke to at the London Book Fair are also keen to see the book translation market grow. There is a world of opportunities in working with translated books; including new literary topics, exploring different cultures, ideas and general new author talent which we miss out on if the books don’t get translated.

Personally, when visiting my local bookshop, I will seek out translated titles as I love to read fiction that provide a different perspective on common themes, or that allows me to immerse myself in another culture. My current favourite translated books are The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, originally written by Stieg Larsson and continued by David Lagercrantz. I highly recommend them, and I’m looking forward to the next addition to the series! If you’ve got a favourite translated book please share it using the comments below! I would love to hear your recommendations, and I’m sure our readers would too.

We recently translated a series of children’s books for the French market, you can find out more about this project and how we did it by reading our case study here.

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