Last night I went to an event at the SouthBank Centre organized by the Writers Centre Norwich on “Living Translation.” It's one of those special evenings with a room full of people all passionate about an important literary subject where it felt like the discussion could go on and on all night with no one getting tired. The conversation between (genius author of Artful & How to be Both which I can't stop talking about) Ali Smith, (esteemed Jose Saramago translator) Margaret Jull Costa and (documentary filmmaker & author of I Am China which I really admired when I read it earlier this summer) Xiaolu Guo moderated by Daniel Hahn touched upon many aspects of cultural, economical and political issues to do with translation. Ali Smith delivered an impassioned “provocative” speech about the origins of words to do with translation, her personal connection to it and how she believes children should be taught not only other languages from a young age but how to translate one text into another. Their lively discussion covered many areas to do with translation and “bad translation” (which some argued was a “good” thing).

I was really struck when Xiaolu Guo talked about the duality of her political and cultural identity as Chinese/Western and how that feeds into and informs her writing. She spoke about the embarrassing fact that approximately only 2% of books published in English are translated books whereas in most other countries the percentage of books in translation are much higher. It's terrifying to think how insulated this makes English-speaking nations from the rest of the world. How can we begin to understand and be part of the greater civilization without reading what they are writing? Even when writing is translated it tends to be because of the economic motivation behind it – the boom in Scandinavian detective/crime fiction, for instance. Of course, there are some small, inspirational presses like Peirene Press who publish important new literary translated works from around the world.

While I'd obviously advocate that more writing should be translated and made available to the English speaking world, the motivation to publish only certain kinds of translated books raises a worrying question for me. If the primary motivation behind translating books is financial for big publishing houses, do those decisions reinforce cultural stereotypes about that country? If the thirst for Scandi crime drama provokes a burst of translation for those languages in that genre is it only because we want to see that culture in a more simplified way? Or does this eventually help encourage translation of more diverse books from those countries as well? Certainly the sensation of Knausgaard's memoirs have opened up the possibilities for other Norwegian writers – as the phenomenon of Haruki Murakami did for more Japanese writing to be translated.

It's really interesting how the political becomes tied with the economic motivations in translation. The word “banned” can be used by some publishers as a marketing tool trying to stir a sensation so that a translated book from China or the Middle East, for instance, which has been deemed controversial for it's parent country is made more “palatable” for Western countries. The intention is to get people to think 'If they don't want their own people to read it, I want to read it!' I remember once hearing Ahdaf Soueif speak about how publishers tried to emphasize and exaggerate the controversy surrounding her books' publication in Egypt as a marketing tactic. I hasten to add many of these books are worth reading and should be read. But I think this is something we need to be mindful of because if we only read because of these political differences it can foster more of a cultural divide rather than a real unification of humanity.

The great hope is that more books - of all varieties - can be translated and published, particularly here in the West where we see such a small percentage of the world's literature. This conversation between languages and culture is necessary for bridging divides between nations. I wonder what great books we're missing out on because they haven't been translated yet. Last night really motivated me to read more books in translation. 

What are some of your favourite books in translation? Have you ever read a book both in its original language and the translated language? Are there books you've read multiple translations of and prefer one translation over another? 

AuthorEric Karl Anderson