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23 May 2016

Translated fiction is not a genre. Why do bookshops tell us it is?

Translated fiction is not a genre. It is illogical and unhelpful to suggest otherwise. 

By Judith Vonberg

For something often seen as a niche interest, translated fiction has been in the news a lot recently. Korean author Han Kang was announced last week as the winner of the Man Booker International Prize at a ceremony full of glitz and glamour. Its new prestige is well earned – a recent survey revealed that translated fiction is selling better in the UK on average than fiction originally written in English.

For a long time, the growth of translated fiction in the UK has been hampered by low status and poor sales. This now seems to be changing. But we must be cautious in our optimism. Too many booksellers and readers still see translated fiction as a separate category, distinct from crime, romance or historical fiction and defined solely by its status as a work of translation.

Just the other week I was in a bookshop buying an Elena Ferrante novel. At the till, the salesperson glanced at my choice and said, “Well, if you like translated fiction, why don’t you try this?” My garbled response – “I can’t really say that I’m a fan…” – quickly trailed off as he thrust the store’s “fiction book of the month” into my hands, a tale of life and love in the Alps by Austrian author Robert Seethaler. Still somewhat confused, I said politely, “Perhaps not today,” paid for my book and left.

If I had picked out an Ian Rankin novel and the assistant had recommended one by John Grisham, that would have been logical. What is not logical is suggesting that I would enjoy a historical novel about a family tragedy just because, like the book I had chosen, it was not originally written in English.

Translated fiction is not a genre. It is illogical and unhelpful to suggest otherwise. It is a group of books that were originally written in a different language to English. By giving translated fiction a separate section in bookshops and online stores and suggesting it is possible to “like” translated fiction, just as one might like crime or sci-fi, booksellers imply that there is something that unites all of these books. Yet it is the broadest possible category – embracing Dante and Henning Mankell, Goethe and Haruki Murakami – and therefore useless to customers browsing for a specific kind of novel.

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There’s also a lack of consistency in how translated novels are categorised. Elena Ferrante’s novels are packaged almost exclusively as translated fiction, while books by Jo Nesbø and Stieg Larsson can also be found in the crime section.

Chris White, Fiction Buyer at Waterstones, explains the store’s approach. “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.”

It’s good that one of Britain’s biggest booksellers is encouraging its customers to discover “new voices”. 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.

It was this attitude that Heather Reyes and Malcolm Burgess of Oxygen Books set out to change with their reader-centred project “A Year of Reading Dangerously”. Based in Essex, the project used well-known authors to make writing in translation accessible and entertaining for a wider audience. Many of the readers involved had never read a translated novel before.

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

By mixing the known with the unknown – introducing translated extracts alongside non-translated ones – Reyes and Burgess tried to show “why these writers are worth reading – and what you’re missing if you don’t try them.”

Many bookshops, especially independent ones, take a similar approach. Tim West, co-owner of the Big Green Bookshop in north London, explained how integrating different types of books works well for them and their customers.

“People often avoid the poetry section,” he says. “By integrating poetry with general fiction, we can make people look at poetry by accident.” They integrate translated fiction in the same way. “A bookshop should be a place to explore and open you to new possibilities,” West said.

Rosie Goldsmith, journalist and director of the European Literature Network, is delighted that more bookshops are taking this approach. “Bookshops are now much better at mixing translated books in amongst general fiction,” she said. “The join hardly shows these days.”

For me, the “join” is still too obvious. Until we make it much easier for readers to encounter translated novels by accident, many foreign authors will never achieve parity with their Anglophone neighbours. Their books will linger on the bookshop shelves, condemned by the looming sign above that reads “Fiction in Translation”.