Translating the Literatures of Smaller European Nations: A Picture from the UK, 2014-16

‘Translating the Literatures of Smaller European Nations’ was a Translating Cultures network that ran from 2014-16. A report on the findings of the project has recently been published by Rajendra Chitnis (University of Bristol), Jakob Stougaard-Nielsen (UCL), Rhian Atkin (University of Cardiff) and Zoran Milutinović (UCL).

The report emerged from a series of public, industry-focused workshops, interviews and other published material arranged and produced during the life-time of the project. ‘Translating the Literatures of Smaller European Nations’ explored how smaller European literatures attempt to reach the wider world. It concentrated on the variety of actors who collaborate to bring a text to an international audience.

Key findings:

• The widespread and enduring pessimism about the prospects for translated literature in the UK is outdated.

• Concern has shifted from a focus on the low amount of translated literature being published to questions about the diversity of literature translated.

• The number of independent presses publishing translated literature has markedly increased in the past decade, often founded by people from corporate publishing or the financial sector with sophisticated strategies for raising their profile and establishing their brand.

• Technological advances are central to the growth in translated literature. Social media, book review sites, on-line reading groups and bloggers have transformed the notion of ‘word-of-mouth’.

• Translated literature remains a preoccupation of the educated urban middle-class, centred fundamentally on London and almost completely absent from school curricula.

• Commercial imperatives foster conservative approaches to book choices even among independent publishers, to the detriment of less familiar European literatures.

• The success of genre fiction in translation raises both hopes that this will make reading translated literature more normal and concerns that this will reduce the diversity of literature translated. An emphasis on retranslating classics rather than translating new works exacerbates the situation, particularly for smaller European literatures for which few if any works have historically attained international classic status.

• Data about the diversity of translated literature shows what is published more than what is actually read. The increasing dominance of English-language literature in both English-speaking contexts and in translation suggests that a declining diversity of voices and perspectives is not unique to English-speaking readers.

• Alongside questions about the diversity of national voices and of literary genres, male authors continue to dominate translated literature, raising questions about selection processes for translation (by publishers and other ‘gatekeepers’, including translators) or for funding or promotion (by national and international organisations or competition juries).

• The prominent phenomenon among smaller European literatures of ‘supply-driven’ translation – motivated not by reader demand but by a desire to circumvent the market or draw publishers’ attention to texts – makes texts available, but raises concerns about the proliferation of unread texts and the quality of translation and product.

• Advocates are divided between those who favour forms of intervention, particularly in relation to funding strategies, to increase the quality and profile of translated literature and those who fear the consequences of intervention for the diversity of translated literature published, including the range of literatures available to readers.

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