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Should Translated Fiction Be Considered A Genre?

A photograph of seven translated books, six in two rows and one resting on top

I must credit New Statesman for this post. The link goes to an interesting article which examines many ideas, albeit from a firm view point.

Do you categorise translated fiction in some way? I don’t, except in the case of my goals, which isn’t really categorising: one of my goals is to read more translated fiction so I do note numbers without thinking how much each book is akin in genre to another. In this way I do sort of bunch them all together but with good reason – in my specific case, any genre will do – it’s that ‘translated by’ byline I’m looking for.

But away from this, translated fiction sports a difference you don’t see in fiction you’re reading in its original language. Other than the obvious ones (it’s a different beast, it can require – does require – a different mindset) you’re kind of reading the work of two writers: the author and the translator. In effect you’re reading someone’s plot and characters in someone else’s words, someone else’s language. Not quite fully, not like the work of David Eddings that in recent years has been shown to be as much the output of his wife, Leigh. And not quite like the work of Ilona Andrews where it’s a fully fledged team. As much as the original author has written the words, someone else has adapted it for another language. Interpreted it. It’s a bit like reading a primary source and a secondary source at the same time because a translator’s interpretation could be said to be akin to commentary. It’s a collaboration after the fact.

Do some people see translated fiction as different because the books are full of the translators’ (choices of) words? I think it would be fair to claim so. This is in a similar vein, though not verging towards intolerance, as people who won’t watch foreign films with subtitles. (Perhaps it’s more in line with people who might not want to read foreign fiction full stop.) But it’s vastly more… palatable… a decision than the film one. (I’m not too tolerant of the film situation because I’ve met too many people who match their stance on media with a refusal to learn about other cultures.)

I’d like to highlight the following quotation from the article:

“Where there is space and a strong local market for translated fiction, it makes sense to at least have a table which encourages a Ferrante reader, say, to try Knausgaard. That’s not to say that people with a predisposition to one translated author will necessarily enjoy another just by virtue of their both being translated, but that customers who are keen to experience new voices from around the world appreciate some direction in making new discoveries.”

This strikes me as a good blend of business sense – can we sell more books in this way? – and passion for reading – whilst these books we want to promote and sell may be in different genres, they may well appeal to people who want translated fiction simply due to the nationality or ‘continental nationality’ of the author, so let’s help them. And I think we all appreciate direction, and are often led by other people’s unremarked-upon marketing decisions.

It’s true that translated fiction unites its readers and because readers of it wish, often, to read more, and to gain knowledge of other places, cultures, even languages (that may sound odd given the translation factor but I trust you know what I mean – metaphors and ways of talking and so on) categorising does make some sense. You’re interested in learning about other countries than Britain, liked that particular book? You may like this one.

I think contention around categorising translated fiction, lumping it together, is more about the fact categorising is already a sticky subject – ‘women’s fiction’ anyone? It’s a difficult one. Are we squashing diverse countries together?

The writer of the article has this to say in response to the above quote:

But why not include international authors who write in English in the same section – authors from Nigeria and India, New Zealand and Canada? Giving translated fiction its own section – and a separate Man Booker prize – suggests that these books are fundamentally different to English-language novels.

This statement has merit to it but a Nigerian writer, for example, writing in English, is limited to and by that language. They can and do of course use Hausa and Arabic words – I’m thinking of Elnathan John here – but for the book to work it has to adhere to English language conventions and as such to western conventions, because it won’t work as well otherwise. No matter if the readership was composed entirely of Nigerians and thus all were able to understand all the Nigerian references, the very fact of the use of English would limit the storytelling somewhat. It’s a different experience to translated fiction; in the case of my example you’re hearing directly from the writer but for whatever reason the text is in your own language (possibly because it’s the writer’s first language, too!) That’s sometimes the reason for foreign words in English language books – that you have to use them because there’s no English counterpart. Though translations still have issues with counterparts, translators can at least work with sentences rather than specific words which may make it easier to show, in the translated language, what the author means. (Not that authors writing in English don’t use foreign sentences of course, but too many of those and you cause your readers a lot of frustration, so it doesn’t happen often.)

Another quote the writer includes:

“I think that by not integrating translated fiction into the general fiction shelves and display tables [sic],” Reyes says, “some readers see it as ‘not for them’ – a category apart from normal fiction.”

That’s Heather Reyes of Oxygen Books, to provide a full reference.

This, the case for a full integration with which the writer of the article agrees, harks back to what I said about films. If it’s different, if there’s not a deliberate effort to make it blend in (if the film isn’t dubbed) then many people won’t give it a second look. Of course this begs the question should we be making it so easy, should we be doing something that will mollify people to try it? That question will receive subjective answers but we can compare the situation to the one wherein we separate translated fiction – by putting it on its own table, we are trying to usher readers to buy (more of) it, and that’s in part a business decision. Why should full integration be any different?

I personally think the answer lies somewhere in the middle – a table set near the ‘regular’ fiction shelves, a table that isn’t always there, books that aren’t solely confined to it. I have to say I’ve only seen Elena Ferrante on general fiction display tables, but she’s hot news at the moment – she’s on display tables because many people are going into stores specifically for her books and so the stores want to make it easy for fans to find her whilst her place on a table means the fans won’t necessarily walk in and out without browsing. And I think it’s fair to say that this is what happens, and it happens also with new and/or popular books in general – table whilst ‘in’, shelves once others take the top spots in the charts. I found One Night, Markovitch on the shelf and Penguin’s publications of George Simenon’s Maigret series from last year are also on the shelves. Do they get noticed, and not just by me or you who happen to be attuned to them? I reckon so. Pushkin Press have done well by Gundar-Goshen – two excellent covers and much promotion. Penguin’s been publishing so much Simenon that you can’t not notice the line of thin white books in the S section (and this is leaving aside his fame).

Translated fiction isn’t a genre as such but a distinct effort to lead people to it on occasion can only be beneficial.

What do you think about all this? Do you read translated fiction? And no matter whether you do or don’t, how do you/would you categorise it?


Laurie C

June 22, 2016, 11:55 am

I can see both sides of the question from a marketing point of view. Which way would sell the most books, I don’t know, though! I have been considering making a conscious effort to read more books in translation, after reading, yes, Elena Ferrante, but also Fredrik Bachman and Hermann Koch, who seem to be accepted in general or “normal” fiction, too. I tended to avoid it because it always seemed to turn out that translations of classics that we read in school were actually mistranslations and now you need to read the more accurate translation that has been published to get a feel for the real writing, and then do it all over again ten years later! ;)

Jenny @ Reading the End

June 22, 2016, 9:30 pm

Oh gosh, I can see it both ways. My instinct would be to shelve translated fiction with the regular fiction (or fantasy fiction if it’s fantasy, or romance if it’s romance, etc.), but then also maybe have a display table to highlight translated fiction — so that way if people are specifically looking for an array of translated fiction, they’ll be able to find it easily.

For my own tracking purposes, I do note if a book has been translated, but that’s not the only genre that I list it as — I also list it as fiction, nonfiction, etc. So while translation counts as a “genre” in my own reading spreadsheet, that’s really just so I can keep track of whether I’m reading more or less translated fiction year over year. (More would be good. I’d like to read more.)

Brian Joseph

June 23, 2016, 11:44 am

Great post.

I have pondered these issues myself. A lot has to do with what one considers a genre. We classify books in a lot of ways that I do not consider genre. For instance, is Italian fiction its own genre? I would lean towards saying no, but it is sometimes useful to segment it out from everything else.

I find that when one tries to come up with a classification system for almost anything one runs into problems.

I like your pragmatic, middle of the road approach.


June 26, 2016, 5:54 pm

“Translated fiction isn’t a genre as such but a distinct effort to lead people to it on occasion can only be beneficial.” I completely agree with you.

Personal, I like Translated Fiction as a genre as I like to be able to find it easily. Because, I think generally translated fiction is the cream of the crop of fiction. If it’s good enough for the money to be spent on translation it’s got to be good. And I want to enjoy that brilliance.But, I wouldn’t say it was a genre as much as it’s an umbrella term. So, by all means have a section for it at the bookshop, but put it in with the English genres as well :)