Translating a Genre

by Lucinda Byatt

Altai by Wu Ming

Altai by Wu Ming

Lucinda Byatt explores the historical novel in translation.

Language is key to discovering other countries and communities and sharing their lives in the present, not to say centuries ago. We can, of course, read historical novels, many of them brilliant, set in foreign countries and written by Anglophone authors. The breadth and depth of secondary sources (in English) available to them is growing all the time, especially now that the academic study of history has moved towards a more nuanced, intimate and inclusive study of the past. For all that, unless an author is steeped in that “other” culture, and – I would argue – can read its language, there will inevitably be aspects of that society that remain elusive. This is where translated historical novels can prove so valuable – if the translation lives up to expectations. As Edith Grossman, a leading literary translator, writes in her excellent book Why Translation Matters, “Translation expands our ability to explore through literature the thoughts and feelings of people from another society or another time. It permits us to savor the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own perceptions and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.”1 No one would disagree, yet fiction translated into English continues to represent but a tiny percentage of what we read.

The European Union Prize for Literature serves to highlight notable works of fiction, forming a platform to promote the circulation of literature within Europe, primarily through translation. Since it was founded in 2009, all EU member-states have been eligible to compete, approximately once every three years. Among the prize-winning authors, several have written historical novels. A prizewinner in 2010, Goce Smilevski’s novel, Freud’s Sister, appeared in translation in 2012 (Macedonian; Christina E. Kramer, Penguin). But Smilevski is in the minority. Others have not made the “transition” into English. Two winning historical novels that struck me were Török Tükör by Viktor Horvàth, about the Hungarian city of Pécs under Ottoman rule in the 16th century, and Palveränd by the Estonian Tiit Aleksejev, a story of the Crusades in the last years of the 11th century. Short of learning Hungarian or Estonian, I can only hope that the books will one day be published in English.

Arguably, the barriers to translation into English are even higher for historical novels since some editors seem determined not to challenge us. Admittedly, publishers have to be sure that the novel to be translated meets the exacting standards of native English readers of historical fiction (standards that have been boosted by the arrival of big-hitters such as Mantel). Readers’ expectations are high, particularly at the literary end of the publishing spectrum, which is where the translated novel usually sits. A publisher must be doubly sure of fulfilling these requisites before investing in a translation. Indeed, translation costs are often seen as the proverbial “straw” that sways the decision whether to publish or not.2 This is particularly shortsighted in view of readers’ declared interests in exploring unfamiliar historical settings, getting that different angle, reassessing preconceptions. Some critics have even accused publishers of underestimating their audience, since readers are not afraid of translations, as is sometimes asserted.3

The new technologies and new media will certainly change this area of publishing as well, making the process simpler. Translators and authors can work together to bring a novel to the market as an e-book. This type of relationship is still in its infancy, but there is enormous potential for further development, provided, of course, that quality is carefully maintained. Amazoncrossing was set up in 2010 and is already having a significant impact. AmazonCrossing’s goal is “to bring more of the world’s great authors to a global audience” and, after just three years, it is already publishing more books in translation than the top independent presses in America, with 24 books published so far in 2013 compared to Dalkey Archive Press’s nineteen.4 In late June, AmazonCrossing made headlines by selling one million copies (print, audio and Kindle) of Oliver Pötzsch’s historical novel series, Hangman’s Daughter (German; Lee Chadeayne). The real problem here is retaining a high quality of translation, and a quick glance at the Amazon reviews for some of these books shows how difficult this can be, especially since, not knowing a foreign language, we have to trust that the translator will respect the author’s choice of register and terminology.

National literary prizes offer rich pickings for choosing books for translation, and this is where many editors start their search. However, there are several prizes at the other end of the process: namely for fiction already translated into English. Two of these are the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) awarded annually for a translated work published in the United Kingdom, while the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) is “an opportunity to honor and celebrate the translators, editors, publishers, and other literary supporters who help make literature from other cultures available to American readers in the United States.”

The shortlisted titles for the IFFP in 2013 included two historical novels: Andrés Neuman’s Traveller of the Century (Spanish; Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Pushkin Press) was highly commended, and Trieste by Daša Drndić (Croatian; Ellen Elias-Bursac, MacLehose) won the IFFP Readers’ Prize. Elif Shafak, one of this year’s IFFP judges and also an award-winning novelist, commented: “In a world where a deeper cross-cultural understanding is a rarity and literature in translation is still not generating the interest it deserves, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize swims against the tide.”

Chad Post (University of Rochester, NY) set up the blog Three Percent in 2007, and the first edition of the Best Translated Book Award followed in 2008. In the past two years, shortlisted historical novels have included A New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (Italian; Judith Landry, Dedalus), Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar (Portuguese; Thomas O. Beebee, Texas Tech University Press), and Lightning. A Novel by Jean Echenoz (French; Linda Coverdale, The New Press). A title to look forward to later this year will be Echenoz’s novel, 1914 (French; Linda Coverdale, The New Press). Other prizes are gradually including more translated fiction, as in the case of the Man Booker International Prize, but several still exclude translated works – a case in point being the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

Returning to the Three Percent website, this is the figure that used to be quoted as the percentage of translated fiction (although this includes drama and poetry, thus lowering the figures for fiction even further). However, literary translation has unquestionably been revitalised in the past few years. There is a new optimism, and that percentage is slowly creeping up. This was confirmed by a report from Literature Across Borders (published in December 2012, its data refer to three sample years: 2000, 2005, and 2008). It concludes that 2.5% of all publications and 4.5% of fiction, poetry, and drama (literature) in the United Kingdom are translations.5 I was interested to note that the Historical Novels Review itself confirms that the “three percent” barrier may have been slightly dented, with 3.7% of books reviewed in the last seven issues being translations.6

The past fifteen years or so have also seen the appearance of several independent houses specialising in translation. Exemplary publishers like Harvill Secker have been joined by Arcadia Books, MacLehose Press (Quercus), Peirene Press, And Other Stories, Europa Editions and others already mentioned. These smaller presses are championing some of the most innovative authors from around the world, and helping to chip away at our linguaphobic barriers. I asked Gary Pulsifer (Arcadia) about José Eduardo Agualusa. He told me that he met “José Eduardo at the Lisbon Book Fair some years ago and was intrigued by Creole. To my mind it’s one of Agualusa’s best, if early, books. It should have been a contender for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but Agualusa (and his translator Daniel Hahn) got there in the end of course, with The Book of Chameleons.” Both books are set in Angola, the first in 1868 while the latter is more or less contemporary… and is narrated by a gecko. Quercus recently introduced English-speaking readers to Mikhail Shishkin’s work, The Light and the Dark (Russian; Andrew Bromfield, 2013). Although epistolary rather than purely historical in form, this novel is clearly a major addition in terms of the English-speaking reader’s access to contemporary Russian literature. Lastly, Peirene will publish Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts (Polish; Philip Boehm) in September, an acclaimed Polish bestseller about the Holocaust.

Our reading habits may be on the verge of becoming a little less insular, but we still lag far behind other countries. A few figures sadly make the point quite clearly: “in Poland a staggering 46% of books published are titles in translation, in Germany over 12%, in Spain around 24% and in France around 15%.”7 It is a truism that translation allows literature to travel. We appear to want to take the journey, but are we being offered the right destinations? With new publishing developments on our side, readers should demand to read the best of world literature, including historical fiction. So casting aside that over-used cliché “lost in translation,” why not start with Altai (Italian; Shaun Whiteside, Verso 2013), which was recently described by Ian Sansom as “unputdownable…historical fiction as a form of cultural protest.” The authors, collectively known as Wu Ming, could probably teach translators a thing or two in that respect.

1. Edith Grossman, Why Translation Matters, Yale University Press, 2010, p.14.
2. Suggested rates are published by the Translators’ Association, part of the UK Society of Authors; the American ALTA and ATA occasionally run compensation surveys. English PEN recently launched grants to support translation, and some EU funds are also available.
3. Books in Translation: It’s Time for Others to Join the Fight, Publishing Perspectives, February 15, 2013 [accessed 26 June 2013]
4. Chad Post, Three Percent, 6 June 2013. [accessed 25 June 2013]
5. Dr Jasmine Donahaye, Three percent? Publishing data and statistics on translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland, December 2012. Literature Across Frontiers, Aberystwyth University, UK. Available online from [accessed 25 June 2013]
6. These data were very kindly supplied by Sarah Johnson.
7. See note 3.

About the contributor: LUCINDA BYATT is HNR’s features coordinator. She teaches courses on Early Modern Europe and translates from Italian.


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 65, August 2013

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