The Translation Dilemma

The Frankfurt Book Fair that closed just a few days ago, is the world’s biggest book fair. When I was living in Frankfurt, I used to visit this event every year – and each year I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of the fair and by the presence of publishers, authors and other less visible participants from the book industry.

One of the features of the book fair in Frankfurt I like most is that (almost) every year, a country or a linguistic region is the Guest of Honor of the event and has the opportunity to present itself in a thematic pavilion. This year, the thematic pavilion presented Finland – and not only the literature – which is beside Finnish also written in Swedish or Sami language – but the culture in general. (Next year the Guest of Honor will be Indonesia.)

Now what I find interesting is that for a week almost all – so it seems to me – important writers and intellectuals of the guest country are in this medium-sized German city, and this comes with a visibility in public that is quite remarkable. Not only that you have plenty of readings and discussions with writers (and not only from the guest country), but also in TV, print and electronic media, the presence of writers and books is immense.

Knowing well that the thematic choice of the Book Fair is also a marketing instrument to focus the interest of the public on a region that is usually not so much present in the mind of the ordinary reader, the publishing houses include in their programmes also a considerable number of translations from the respective guest of the year.

As a result of these combined efforts (of which of course the translators are a crucial part), I counted 130 new translations and editions of belletristic texts (fiction) from Finnish to German in 2013/2014. Of these, about 70% are books that have never been translated before. Additionally about 60 belletristic books from Finnish authors that write in Swedish or Sami language have been translated into German in the same period.

Just for the record: according to the Three Percent database of the University of Rochester that lists all translations from foreign languages that are available via publishers in the US, in the same period only one (1) fiction book was translated from Finnish to English!

Poor readers in the US (and in the other anglophone countries the situation is almost the same) – when you don’t read Finnish (or Swedish or German), your chances to ever have an opportunity to read a contemporary Finnish novel, story book or poetry collection are almost zero. And the same goes for many many other books even from “major” languages. (I don’t want to insinuate in any way that “small” languages, i.e. languages with a comparatively small number of native speakers produce “small”, i.e. unimportant literature – the contrary is true! I am just referring here to the negligence even of languages with more than 50 or 100 million native speakers)

Maybe Warren Buffett, Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg could sponsor a major translation programme to make all important works of literature available to English-speaking readers? Just asking…

Blogging really opened my eyes about the fact how very important translations of literary texts are. When they are – for whatever reason – not available, many readers are cut off from the chance to really understand what’s going on in the world and how other cultures really are.

The result of this possibly distorted world view is becoming a serious problem – even geo-politically. I am convinced that a lot of the misconceptions and blunders of policy makers are the result of a lack of knowledge – which frequently is the result of a lack of translated information and literary texts.

If this blog and those of many similarly devoted bloggers makes a few people sensitive for this question or in one case or the other finds an important translated book a few new readers – or even a publisher! -, then it has achieved already quite a lot.

By the way, have you read any Finnish fiction? I will for sure later review one or the other book here as well, but I am curious to hear from my readers what they can possibly recommend.

 © Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

2 thoughts on “The Translation Dilemma

  1. Caroline

    This is a very interesting post. I saw that number of translations as well. It’s stunning. Indeed, poor US/UK.
    I’m glad I read German. Now I wish i had gone to the book fair. I’ve never been there although I live but a tow hour train ride from Frankfurt.

    Reply
  2. admin Post author

    Thank you, Caroline. I didn’t have the opportunity to go to the fair this year, but for next year it is already on my calendar. Maybe I’ll see you there?! Can’t wait to see the Indonesian pavilion – I lived 2 years in Indonesia and just the thought of it makes me kind of homesick.

    Reply

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