While the number of books published in translation in the United Kingdom remains low—research by Literature Across Frontiers, a platform for literary exchange, translation and policy debate produced an average figure of 3% over the past 20 years—the success of the likes of Karl Ove Knausgård, Elena Ferrante, and Han Kang is catalysing interest towards books written in languages other than English. The number of literary translations grew by 66% between 1990 and 2015, LAF says. Among the most popular source languages were Swedish, Norwegian and Dutch, alongside Arabic and Japanese. These figures conceal the fact that out of the world’s thousands of literary cultures, only a few ever achieve any level of representation in English. For those who translate from these under-represented languages, it is an opportunity to act beyond the traditional boundaries of a translator.
Mo Yan’s 2012 Nobel Prize in Literature win has yet to ease China’s big break on the Western literary market. “There is a huge canon of contemporary Chinese literature that no one in the United Kingdom has ever heard of,” says Nicky Harman, previously a teacher of translation at Imperial College London and a full-time translator of Chinese since 2011. “I have the privilege of pushing open the window.” Harman is one of the Chinese into English translators who set up Paper Republic, a website that promotes Chinese literature, in 2008.
Mui Poopoksakul, who exchanged a career in law for translation three years ago, sees herself as a bridge between Thai and Anglo-Saxon cultures. “That also means I’m in the position to choose which authors and what type of literature get to cross that bridge.” Her first translation was a short story by Prabda Yoon. “I decided to translate Yoon because he was an author I was drawn to. It’s easy to just start somewhere when nothing has been translated! Who to include and exclude becomes much a more sensitive issue after that.”
One of the reasons Poopoksakul was attracted to Yoon, a well-known literary figure in his own country, is that he writes stories about urban Thailand instead of the Thailand of poor rice fields and party beaches an English speaking reader might expect to read. Deborah Smith, a translator from Korean and founder of the recently launched publishing house Tilted Axis Press, talks about how working with under-represented literature requires a high level of awareness of the cultural clichés we’ve swallowed. “What kind of literature has been allowed through from for example India to the UK? Family sagas and colonialist themes. India has incredibly rich regional literary tradition that we’ve so far chosen to ignore because it doesn’t sit within a paradigm.” As the Russian literary historian D. S. Mirsky said in 1924 about author Nikolai Leskov: he might not write stories Anglo-Saxon readers wanted from a Russian author, but they are stories the Russians themselves would recognise.
Like Poopoksakul, Smith also talks about the translator’s responsibility in canon-building. As a translator and expert on small Asian languages, Smith plays a more substantial part in the publishing process than a translator usually would. “The editors are unable to read the original and often there are no international agents pitching for the author, which means I get to act as a curator and wield large influence in what will be translated. I’ve consciously decidedly to work against canon, if there is one, and see gender quotas as necessary in this process.”
Sometimes it’s not the British publisher’s prejudice that influences publishing decisions. Writers outside of the establishment might be excluded in their own country, and their work is more difficult to find that those who enjoy popularity. Harman points out that in China publishing is controlled by the Chinese Writers Association. Politics often influence cultural policy, and many times it’s the translator that the publisher relies on for this type of knowledge. “Working with an under-represented language it’s more likely that the publisher will keep me involved throughout the publishing process and not just to produce the translation,” Smith says.
Smith’s working language, Korean, has so far mainly been published in translation by North American university presses. “I think there’s a danger that literature from languages other than English is treated as anthropology rather than art. It’s a particularly fine line to navigate when, as a translator, you try to provide background information on the culture in question for the English speaking reader.” “I do see it as my responsibility to contextualise Thai writers so that they feel approachable for the uninitiated,” Poopoksakul says. Paper Republic has sought to actively widen its readership and promote translated Chinese fiction by doing live events and co-publishing with larger online literary journals, such as Asymptote, and even The Guardian. “Our goals have been from the start to think big and introduce mainstream readers to Chinese fiction,” Harman explains. “I wouldn’t want my work to be seen as a curiosity—translated literature can have mass-market appeal and be just as relevant as literature written in English.”
featured image: Mui Poopoksakul, Deborah Smith, translator of Catalan Peter Bush, and translator of Polish Antonia Lloyd Jones at the 2016 London Book Fair