Translated fiction enjoys sales boom as UK readers flock to European authors

On eve of Brexit, figures show unprecedented numbers of Britons are turning to translations of continental novels

 Leïla Slimani.

 Not remaining on shelves … 

As Brexit looms and the UK faces a future outside the EU, the country’s readers are gulping down European fiction at an unprecedented rate, with sales at their highest since records began.

According to research commissioned by the Man Booker International (MBI) prize from Nielsen Book, overall sales of translated fiction in the UK were up last year by 5.5%, with more than 2.6m books sold, worth £20.7m – the highest level since Nielsen began to track sales in 2001. Over the last 18 years, sales of fiction in translation have risen “steadily”, with the performance of translated literary fiction in particular standing out for its “extreme growth”, up 20% in 2018 year-on-year. Sales of English-language literary fiction over the period, meanwhile, have plateaued and are now significantly below where they stood in the mid-noughties.

Quick guide

Top 10 bestselling novels in translation in 2018


“Reading fiction is one of the best ways we have of putting ourselves in other people’s shoes. The rise in sales of translated fiction shows how hungry British readers are for terrific writing from other countries,” said Fiammetta Rocco, administrator of the Man Booker International (MBI) prize, which will announce its longlist on 13 March.

Norwegian and Swedish writing, represented by authors including the Norwegian thriller powerhouse Jo Nesbø and the Swedish bestseller Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, was also popular over the last year, with Chinese, Arabic, Icelandic and Polish languages “in growing demand”. Popular Polish titles included Olga Tokarczuk’s MBI-winning Flights, as well as Andrzej Sapkowski’s fantasy series The Witcher. Chinese science fiction and fantasy novels such as Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem and Jin Yong’s A Hero Born also sold strongly, but sales of crime novels and thrillers, a major contributor to sales of translated fiction in the past, declined by 19% between 2017 and 2018.

Charlotte Collins, co-chair of the Translators Association and translator of Robert Seethaler’s MBI-shortlisted novel A Whole Life, hailed the surge of interest, adding that the amount of international fiction now available for sale in the UK has almost doubled in recent years, now accounting for 5.63% of all published fiction.

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The power of language: we translate our thoughts into words, but words also affect the way we think

Have you ever worried in your student years or later in life that time may be starting to run out to achieve your goals? If so, would it be easier conveying this feeling to others if there was a word meaning just that? In German, there is. That feeling of panic associated with one’s opportunities appearing to run out is called Torschlusspanik.

German has a rich collection of such terms, made up of often two, three or more words connected to form a superword or compound word. Compound words are particularly powerful because they are (much) more than the sum of their parts. Torschlusspanik, for instance, is literally made of “gate”-“closing”-“panic”.

If you get to the train station a little late and see your train’s doors still open, you may have experienced a concrete form of Torschlusspanik, prompted by the characteristic beeps as the train doors are about to close. But this compound word of German is associated with more than the literal meaning. It evokes something more abstract, referring to the feeling that life is progressively shutting the door of opportunities as time goes by.

English too has many compound words. Some combine rather concrete words like “seahorse”, “butterfly”, or “turtleneck”. Others are more abstract, such as “backwards” or “whatsoever”. And of course in English too, compounds are superwords, as in German or French, since their meaning is often distinct from the meaning of its parts. A seahorse is not a horse, a butterfly is not a fly, turtles don’t wear turtlenecks, etc.

One remarkable feature of compound words is that they don’t translate well at all from one language to another, at least when it comes to translating their constituent parts literally. Who would have thought that a “carry-sheets” is a wallet – porte-feuille –, or that a “support-throat” is a bra – soutien-gorge – in French?

This begs the question of what happens when words don’t readily translate from one language to another. For instance, what happens when a native speaker of German tries to convey in English that they just had a spurt of Torschlusspanik? Naturally, they will resort to paraphrasing, that is, they will make up a narrative with examples to make their interlocutor understand what they are trying to say.

But then, this begs another, bigger question: Do people who have words that simply do not translate in another language have access to different concepts? Take the case of hiraeth for instance, a beautiful word of Welsh famous for being essentially untranslatable. Hiraeth is meant to convey the feeling associated with the bittersweet memory of missing something or someone, while being grateful of their existence.

Hiraeth is not nostalgia, it is not anguish, or frustration, or melancholy, or regret. And no, it is not homesickness, as Google translate may lead you to believe, since hiraeth also conveys the feeling one experiences when they ask someone to marry them and they are turned down, hardly a case of homesickness.

Different words, different minds?

The existence of a word in Welsh to convey this particular feeling poses a fundamental question on language–thought relationships. Asked in ancient Greece by philosophers such as Herodotus (450 BC), this question has resurfaced in the middle of the last century, under the impetus of Edward Sapir and his student Benjamin Lee Whorf, and has become known as the linguistic relativity hypothesis.

Linguistic relativity is the idea that language, which most people agree originates in and expresses human thought, can feedback to thinking, influencing thought in return. So, could different words or different grammatical constructs “shape” thinking differently in speakers of different languages? Being quite intuitive, this idea has enjoyed quite of bit of success in popular culture, lately appearing in a rather provocative form in the science fiction movie Arrival.

Although the idea is intuitive for some, exaggerated claims have been made about the extent of vocabulary diversity in some languages. Exaggerations have enticed illustrious linguists to write satirical essays such as “the great Eskimo vocabulary hoax”, where Geoff Pullum denounces the fantasy about the number of words used by Eskimos to refer to snow. However, whatever the actual number of words for snow in Eskimo, Pullum’s pamphlet fails to address an important question: what do we actually know about Eskimos’ perception of snow?

No matter how vitriolic critics of the linguistic relativity hypothesis may be, experimental research seeking scientific evidence for the existence of differences between speakers of different languages has started accumulating at a steady pace. For instance, Panos Athanasopoulos at Lancaster University, has made striking observations that having particular words to distinguish colour categories goes hand-in-hand with appreciating colour contrasts. So, he points out, native speakers of Greek, who have distinct basic colour terms for light and dark blue (ghalazio and ble respectively) tend to consider corresponding shades of blue as more dissimilar than native speaker of English, who use the same basic term “blue” to describe them.

But scholars including Steven Pinker at Harvard are unimpressed, arguing that such effects are trivial and uninteresting, because individuals engaged in experiments are likely to use language in their head when making judgements about colours – so their behaviour is superficially influenced by language, while everyone sees the world in the same way.

To progress in this debate, I believe we need to get closer to the human brain, by measuring perception more directly, preferably within the small fraction of time preceding mental access to language. This is now possible, thanks to neuroscientific methods and – incredibly – early results lean in favour of Sapir and Whorf’s intuition.

So, yes, like it or not, it may well be that having different words means having differently structured minds. But then, given that every mind on earth is unique and distinct, this is not really a game changer.

This post originally appeared on Theconversation