Translating for Publication: Non-fiction.

I was delighted to be asked to give a paper at the Summer Meeting of the ITI Scottish Network, held in “sunny” Dumfries this past weekend.  In a room full of translators, including many who are highly experienced in technical and other areas of translation, this might have been daunting, but the “Scotnetters” are extremely friendly and welcoming (also I am an insider, as it were, having been a member of the network for several years, albeit not always present at meetings!).

A panel of four literary translators had been lined up and, despite minimal even zero forward planning, our talks neatly interlinked, moving from Ingrid Price-Gschlössl on the advantages of a scholarship/bursary when starting out as a literary translator, to my own paper on non-fiction (more below). Then, after an excellent lunch eaten al fresco on the manicured lawns of the Crichton Estate, we enjoyed Beth Fowler‘s presentation on “getting started” – in her case, by winning the Harvill Secker Young Translator’s Prize in 2010 – and a fascinating insight into translating Nordic crime by Kari Dickson.

The four of us were joined at a closing roundtable by Nathalie Chalmers, Kim Sanderson and Renate FitzRoy. They all had experience of literary translation in one form or other, which made for a lively discussion.

I hope this may well mark the start of more regular workshops on literary translation around Scotland, and not only south of the border!

For the record here are some excerpts from the introduction to my own paper:


I read an article while I was preparing this whose title was “YAWN NO MORE. Americans and the Market for Foreign Fiction”. It’s an optimistic piece based on the outcome of the Global Market Forum at BEA, Books Expo America, held in the last week of May, which suggested that at long last the US too has woken up to the fact that translation can offer an extraordinary wealth of experience to US readers. Or, to use the words of Susan Harris, editorial director of Words Without Borders, who was talking about America’s long-standing aversion to reading in translation: “It’s a first world problem that inhibits us from understanding the rest of the world.”

That aversion produced a famous, largely anecdotal statistic, namely that only 3% of all books published in the US (in English) were works in translation. It became so well known that a trend-setting website was named after it (Three Percent), founded by Chad Post at Rochester University. Chad and many other campaigning voices, in America and elsewhere, but above all here in the UK (Maureen Freely, Ros Schwartz, Daniel Hahn, just to name a few), have ensured that this figure is gradually increasing – only slightly in numerically terms – but, more importantly, literary translation is now a KEY feature on the publishing scene, at fairs and festivals. Perceptions are definitely changing. These are exciting times to be a literary translator!

There is certainly no room for complacency, though, and particularly – and this turns more towards my own field, non-fiction – when you add into the mix another ingredient, which is that broadly held misconception that literary translation only relates to works of fiction.

As a historian, as well as a translator, I find it intriguing how our understanding of literary translation has developed over the centuries.  Religious texts are a whole different field, of course, but we could start by mentioning the forty-seven-strong team of translators who worked on the King James Bible, whose 400th anniversary we celebrated in 2007. But in general, from the Elizabethans and Jacobeans onwards, we continue to find a strong presence of what we might call now “non-fiction” translations: religious, political and courtly tracts were popular subjects for translation in seventeenth century England.  Machiavelli’s Art of War was translated as early as 1560 (through French – i.e. as a double translation) by Peter Whitehorne; The Prince had to wait for well over a century after it was originally written before it appeared in English in 1640, translated straight from Italian, thanks to Edward Dacres. However, well before that, we know that Henry VIII and certainly Thomas Cromwell, read The Prince in Italian.

This brings up an important point: that for centuries, most educated men and women read in a foreign language. Even in the 19th century – one of the greatest eras of the European novel – elite British society had little need of translation, particularly from French and Italian, thanks to the Grand Tour.  This was accompanied – to quote Terry Hale, in the Oxford History of Literary Translation (edited by Peter France and Kenneth Haynes) – by a “patriotic general public unsure of the moral value of foreign literature” – and by literature here, he means novels, drama and verse.[1] However, the trend of translating continental fiction rose during the century as more new French, German and Russian novels were translated. Translated non-fiction, on the other hand, remained relatively stable, accounting for nearly 56% of all translations in 1830, and 50% in 1890.[2]

So to return to that popular misconception that literary translation only relates to works of fiction, the translation of non-fiction has an extremely long and respectable history: it is certainly literature.  It is just the rarity of it today (as a small subset of that 3%) that may make it seem “stranger than fiction”.

A clear signal of the status of non-fiction translation comes from the International Federation of Translators FIT which has a dedicated prize, wonderfully named the Aurora Borealis prize. Its purpose is “to promote the translation of non-fiction literature, improve the quality thereof and draw attention to the role of translators in bringing the peoples of the world closer together in terms of culture.”

Other points that came up in the discussion were the importance of contact with the author, the wide variety of methods used to tackle research, and also our approaches to managing a book-length project, which included different experiences of working with copy-editors.

All in all, it was an excellent day with really useful insights from all the other panellists and from the audience. Thanks too to the organisers of the meeting, Marion Greenway and Corinne Durand, as well to the ScotNet convenor, Pierre Fuentes.


[1] Terry Hale, “Readers and Publishers of Translations in Britain”, in Peter France and Kenneth Haynes (eds), The Oxford History of Literary Translation in English, Vol. 4, Oxford 2006, p.36

[2] Peter France and Kenneth Haynes, “The Publication of Literary Translation: An Overview”, in Ibid, p.137 (Table 2)

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