Ali Smith on literature in translation

Ali Smith (via Transblawg) makes some ill-conceived remarks in the London Times re the availability of translated literature on the UK market:

Of all the books published in the UK, only 3 to 4 per cent are translations. What’s the matter with us? Don’t we like to look at anything but ourselves? Are we so vain? Do we simply not care, not want to know what’s happening in the literatures of the rest of the world? It’s embarrassing. It’s like a terrible leftover of imperialism. Thank God for the publishers who take chances. Thank God for prizes like The Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize…

This is simply nonsense. Is it really true that we English-speakers can only experience The Others through literature in translation? (I wonder if this isn’t a case of the syndrome described here by Rushdie: “There is a whiff of political correctness about them: the ironical proposition that India’s best writing since Independence may have been done in the language of the departed imperialists is simply too much for some folks to bear.”) Can anyone think of an institution that did as much as the British empire to stimulate translation into English, the study of strange languages and cultures, and writing itself?

There are various simple explanations for the comparatively low proportion of translated work available on the English-language market as compared to the Spanish (this is partly a paraphrase of a paraphrase of Jacques Mélitz):

  1. As with scientific authors, good novelists who are capable of doing so write in English even if it’s not their native language because they know that, although getting published and noticed is more difficult, the importance of the market–in terms of both direct sales and translations into other languages–makes it worthwhile. Something along these lines operates in Barcelona: the best writers, whatever their mother tongue, write in Spanish, while the rest forage in Catalan for the (substantial) subsidies and prizes distributed by the regional government and its diabolical spawn.
  2. For economic reasons, few novels get translated without having generated substantial original language sales. This is difficult to achieve in languages with comparatively few native speakers (eg Galician) or with horrendously low levels of literacy (eg Arabic).
  3. Despite this, translations into English do actually constitute 50% of the world market. If we’re bad, then others are worse.

(Here‘s a fascinating off-topic claim by Manas Saikia: “In English language publishing, India is probably the second largest in the world in unit terms. This is anecdotal, as there is no data to call upon. In value terms, it is way down the list. In a decade or so I expect it to become the second largest.”)

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