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The UK’s Role in Promoting Translation

International literature in English has grown in popularity over the past 10 years, with a lot of effort put into cultural exchange through UK organizations. When it comes to the relationship between the UK and translation promotion, we can see there has been a lot of work done to promote foreign novels. The cultural exchange initiatives in the UK have made it so that translated books are becoming increasingly popular. In this piece, we will look at the translation of international literature into English in the UK, why it has been successful, and why it is important.

International Literature in English

The UK has produced many great writers and texts over the past century. London, in particular, has been a hotbed for literary geniuses like William Shakespeare, Virginia Woolf, and Charles Dickens. With such great literature produced in the UK in English, it is understandable that those books would be the main focus of UK-based readers. It seems as though, generally speaking, UK readers wanted books that were written in English more so than books that were translated into English in the 1990’s through the 2000’s, with only a very small percentage of books published in the UK being ones originally published in a different language. This can be attributed to the fact that English is a widely spoken language throughout the world, so authors from other countries were likely to have a good enough grasp of the English language to write in English. Conversely, UK publishers mostly only speak English and don’t have a strong enough level of literacy in another language to translate a book. So, it was easier for UK publishers to just get books that were written in English than to get books in other languages and try to translate them.

However, translated books have grown in popularity in the fiction genre in the UK. Data from Nielsen’s Books and Consumers monthly survey shows translated fiction is becoming increasingly popular in the UK. The survey looks at book buyers between the ages of 13 and 84 and how they consume books. Results of the survey from 2022 indicate that close to 2 million translated fiction books were bought in the UK last year.

It appears that younger readers are the target market, with almost half of the readers younger than 34 and only 8% of the readers being retired people. An interesting takeaway from the survey is that when it comes to male readers, more are buying fiction that has been translated into English than fiction that was originally published in English. In terms of qualitative data, the majority of people in the UK who are buying translated fiction say that it is like a “challenging” book. The majority of people who buy translated fiction books are female.

When it comes to the translated books that people are buying, in what languages were they originally published? The most popular books tend to be translated into Japanese. Popular original European languages include Italian, German, French, Spanish, Norwegian, Swedish, and Portuguese. Chinese is also a popular original language.

UK and Translation Promtion

UK and Translation Promotion

When it comes to cultural exchange through UK organizations, there are several bodies that have been set up to encourage readers in the UK to dive into international literature. 

These include:

  • The British Centre for Literary Translation (BCLT)
  • Emerging Translators Network
  • The Translators Association

The establishment of these organizations is important for cultural exchange initiatives in the UK.

The first of these, the literature BCLT, was set up in 1989 by a European literature professor called W.G. Sebald, who also wrote in German. Sebald moved to the UK but continued writing in German. The BCLT holds events to help support and promote literary translation and improve the professional development of translators. This organization is linked to the National Centre for Writing in the UK. They regularly hold workshops and seminars throughout the year, both online and in person.

In 2011, translators based in the UK launched the Emerging Translators Network. The group is run by volunteers and has a particular focus on the publishing market in the UK. Despite mainly revolving around the UK, there are members from all over the world. The ETN also has a blog where translators can share stories about their work in translating literature.

The Translators Association is a branch of the Society of Authors, which is a trade union for writers and illustrators in the UK. The Translators Association exists to support literary translators in the UK. It offers them support in their work and helps translators find opportunities. The TA is helpful for UK-based translators as it encourages inclusion and equal opportunities for translators. As it is part of a union, the TA can also help and advise translators about fees and payments, as well as their rights.

These organizations do really important work in promoting the translation of international literature into English throughout the UK. They also ensure that the standard for translating international literature into English is always improving and that the translation is of good quality and reflective of the original story in the author’s native language.

UK Initiatives for Promoting Translation

One initiative involving books published in the UK is the International Booker Prize. This is an annual award given to books that were published physically in the UK or Ireland (or both countries) that have been translated to English from another language. It is related to the Booker Prize, which is a literary award for fiction that was first awarded in 1969. It is awarded annually to fiction books published in the UK or Ireland. The International Booker Prize was brought in to promote international literature in English. This award has been given out since 2005, but originally, it was just for books written outside the UK or Ireland and didn’t consider language. However, since 2015, it has been given to a book that was translated from a different language into English. The award is given to single books rather than series, and it can be awarded to novels or collections of short stories. The prize began as a cultural exchange initiative in the UK. With the new rules that came in 2015, the award has focused on the best literature that has been written in a language other than English and then translated to a high standard. The award has been given annually in an effort to promote the translation of international literature into English and to try and encourage UK readers to branch out and read great international fiction works.

Cultural exchange initiatives in the UK

International Literature in English

Thanks partly to the UK initiatives for promoting translation, there are not many successful writers who produced books originally in a different language and went on to experience huge success when their work entered the English language market. We’ve put together this list of 10 authors who show that the translation of international literature into English is both marketable and fruitful.

  • Geetanjali Shree, the author of the book Tomb of Sand, won the International Booker Prize last year. The book was originally written in Hindi and was translated to English by Daisy Rockwell.
  • Japanese author Mieko Kawakami has contributed to the success of Japanese language books translated to English, with three of her novels featuring in the top 30 translated fiction books in the UK for 2022.
  • Jonas Jonasson is a Swedish author who wrote two popular books, one of which is The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed-Out-of-the-Window-and-Disappeared, which was adapted for film. He also wrote a sequel in 2018, nine years after the original. The books were written in Swedish before being translated.
  • A horror book by Leila Slimania called Lullaby was originally written in French and won one of the top literary awards in France before being translated into English.
  • The Polish author Olga Nawoja Tokarczuk won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Literature for her great writing. One of our popular works translated into English was Flights, which was translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft. For this novel, she was awarded the 2018 Booker International Prize.
  • Elena Ferrante is an Italian author who has stayed out of the public eye. Her books, however, have been popular in the UK translated fiction market, including The Days of Abandonment and The Story of the Lost Child.
  • Swedish writer David Lagercantz has written popular crime novels that have been adapted for film, including The Girl in the Spider’s Web, and The Girl Who Takes and Eye for an Eye. The books were originally written in Swedish, as were their predecessors in the series written by Stieg Larsson.
  • Another of the many popular fiction works translated from Japanese is The Travelling Cat Chronicles, written by Hiro Arikawa. It is a humorous tale about a man on a road trip traveling through Japan with his cat.
  • Jo Nesbo is a Norwegian writer who wrote a dystopian version of the popular Shakespeare play Macbeth, which proved popular in English. He also wrote a crime book that was successful, called The Thirst.
  • Andrey Kourkov is a novelist who previously worked in film. He was born in what was at the time the Soviet Union, and his book Death and the Penguin was translated into English (as well as other languages) to become a best-seller worldwide.

These are just 10 of the many authors from around the world who translated their works from their native language into English and saw their books achieve critical acclaim.

Why the Translation of International Literature into English Is Important

So, we know there are excellent initiatives in cultural exchange through UK organizations that work to support the translation of books from around the world and promote the reading of excellent international literature in English. But why exactly is it important to translate books? Here are six key reasons:

  1. Translating books, whether that’s to or from English, ensures they can reach a global audience. There are over a billion speakers of English and Mandarin in the world, with 100’s of millions more speaking languages like Hindi, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Portuguese. Having books in multiple different languages ensures people all around the world can read in a tongue they are comfortable with.
  2. Translating books helps encourage readers to learn a language. When it comes to books translated into English, people from non-English-speaking backgrounds can benefit from reading novels that were originally written in their native language, as this will help them gain a stronger grasp of English.
  3. Having books from different cultures translated so that English speakers can read them will help native English speakers learn about different cultures and ways of doing things. In the English-speaking world, we can have the habit of disregarding media and art from other cultures if they are in a different language. This leads to the marginalization of others. Having books translated to a high standard in English means English speakers can learn about the culture and way of doing things of where the author is from, which encourages diversity.
  4. In addition to learning about our differences, translating books can also bring people together. We’ve looked at how popular translated fiction books are in the UK, especially ones written originally in Japanese. It would have been easy to assume a reader from the UK and a reader from Japan have nothing in common, but clearly, there is an overlap in the UK and Japanese markets in terms of the types of fiction that are popular. Having books translated can help bridge the gap in a world full of cultural divides.
  5. Translating work ensures that languages don’t get lost. Indigenous languages, in particular, are at risk of going extinct, so ensuring books are translated can help ensure languages and cultures don’t get lost in time.
  6. By ensuring books are translated into English and other languages, they become more accessible. Some people don’t have the opportunity to learn other languages through education, and people with learning disabilities can struggle to learn new languages. So by having books translated, they become accessible to more people, which means more people can access ideas, information, and entertainment. Translated books could even inspire a young author.

Final Words

International literature in English will continue to be popular thanks to UK initiatives promoting translation. The cultural exchange initiatives in the UK have ensured that books from around the world have become accessible to English speakers. While the UK publishing industry faces challenges, we can see that the translation of international literature into English has proven successful in the UK, as we can see by the popularity of translated fiction.

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