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Demand for literary translations reaches all-time high

on Wednesday 24 September 2014 Written by David Martin

Literary translators rejoice, as this summer the UK has seen a reported "mini-boom" in the popularity of foreign authors.

The Guardian reports that British bookworms have picked translated works off the shelves in record numbers this year. The most popular novels, unsurprisingly perhaps, have come from the Scandinavian shores thanks to the popularity of Stieg Larson's Millenium series, as well as Nordic television dramas such as The Killing and The Bridge.

However, this trend stretches much further ashore. Japanese author Haruki Murakami will see his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, translated into English for the first time with its release eagerly anticipated for next year. Furthermore, one of the earliest collections of Arabic short stories, entitled Tales of the Marvelous and News of the Strange, will be translated and published in English for the first time in more than 1,000 years - a stunning milestone for Arabic literature and its potential to attract a new audience.

The news comes in stark contrast to research published just over 18 months ago by the literary exchange and translation platform, Literature Across Frontiers, which revealed that only 2.5 per cent of all publications and 4.5 per cent of fiction, poetry drama sold in the UK in 2012 were translations. Such numbers hint that British audiences simply may not be interested in reading about characters in the Orient, South America or even across the Chanel in mainland Europe.

There is, however, another story to be told. Translated literature has seen a slow yet steady rise since the turn of the century, as we blogged about last year. Speaking to the Guardian, t director Alexandra Büchler said that the overall uptake had grown by 18 per cent in the last 20 years.

So too has the popularity of foreign authors, with the likes of Larson and Murakami becoming household names in the UK. When Murakami's latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, was released in the UK, bookshops nationwide struggled to meet customer demand.

However, the overall popularity of translated literature in the UK is still a "spit in the ocean" when compared with other Western European countries (many of whom, it must be noted, share a common love for living British authors such Ian McEwan, Philip Pullman and, of course, JK Rowling). These the words of Lawrence Venuti, a translator and author of The Translator’s Invisibility, who also stated that part of the blame lies with publishing houses, who are often reserved when it comes to publishing translated works or, when they do, fail to give the translator their deserved kudos by omitting their name from the cover.

This makes the duties undertaken by bodies such as Literature Across Border and the British Centre for Literary Translations in promoting translated literature, both from and into English, so worthwhile. Promoting foreign works does not just help authors, translators, and publishers, but also, just as importantly, provides audiences with a window into a foreign people, their history and culture.

We are delighted to hear that the landscape is changing. British readers longer display a conservative attitude towards foreign works, and the bookshelves in Waterstones reflect this.

Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, Harry Potter – as Brits, we can be proud to have blessed the world with some of the most recognised fictional protagonists that have become cult figures and symbols for these shores. Let us not hide ourselves from the equaling gripping in the mind of aspiring novelists the world over.