Bestselling Authors Abroad: The Society of Authors event at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival

It’s good to be able to claim that an event is the first of its kind – not the fact that I was asked to chair it (although incidentally that was a first), but rather that this was the first talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival about translation out of English: in other words about translation as a major cultural export. The authors who took part, Julia Donaldson and Peter May, are both bestsellers abroad (Donaldson is translated into a staggering 64 languages), but they are not alone. Translation of English-language books into foreign languages is a major business that dwarfs the tiny percentage of books translated into English.

It was a sell-out event which was encouraging. Translation, albeit usually featuring foreign authors and/or their English translators, has become a regular strand of the EIBF programme – in no small part thanks to translators themselves, including Daniel Hahn, Ros Schwartz, and many other members of the Translators Association, which is part of the Society of Authors. So it was excellent on this occasion to turn the tables and hear about the experience of being translated into foreign languages and the advantages and occasional pitfalls it brings.

To warm up the house, Julia Donaldson and her husband were joined by a few others, including myself, in a multilingual performance of the opening scenes of the Gruffalo. That was followed a little later on by a reading of a passage from the latest Italian translation (by Chiara Ujka) of the final book in Peter May’s Lewis trilogy, read with great flair by Giorgio Granozio. In between the conversation ranged widely over various aspects of translation. Translators do not always get in touch, I learnt, and sometimes the book just appears. However, other translators go to great lengths to understand the finer points of, in May’s case, Gaelic traditions on the isle of Lewis, and even the Scottish education system.

Both authors found the translation of book titles arcane at times. Obviously it involves more people than just the translator: after all, the marketing department need a title that will sell. Peter May, whose first novel in his Lewis Trilogy, The Blackhouse, was originally published in French, said that he actually preferred the title it was given: L’île des chasseurs des oiseaux. Another of his books, Freezeframe, will be published with the French title L’île au rebus – even if that might remind readers of a rather well-known Scottish detective. Sometimes it’s not even a question of foreign languages: American publishers unhappy with the word “tiddler” wanted to call Donaldson’s book of that ilk, Small Fry.

Many of Donaldson’s book are in rhyme, making them that much more tricky to translate. However, her translators are often authors themselves, and even poets – she mentioned the Irish translator Tormod Caimbeul, and James Robertson her Scots translator.

Talking about book promotion was also interesting: Peter May lives in France and he notes a big difference in the type of promotion and the venues. France does not have the large chains that are so dominant in the UK and the States, and instead has retained a wealth of independent bookshops. Moreover, literary festivals are widespread, and come in all sizes. The downside, if there is one, is that he is expected to speak French. Donaldson added that independent bookshops survive on the back of the the Net Book Agreement: a hardback novel may cost 22 euros when first published, compared to the discounted prices we find on this side of the channel.

Both Donaldson and May were supportive of a recent Twitter campaign, #namethetranslator, still actively promoted by the Translators Association. This focuses on ensuring that the translator is named – in the book itself, but also in publicity materials and, particularly, in book reviews. May stated that his first French translator took a share of the royalties. He went on to add that translation is about so much more than a word for word equivalence: the art of the translator is the same as that of a writer, involving enormous creative input to convey the spirit of the text. And for that the translator should be duly credited.

The event ended with a number of questions confirming that the topic of bestselling authors abroad had struck a chord with the public by focusing on a different facet of translation and selling books.

The SOA event at EIBF happens yearly and we are currently discussing our session for 2016 – watch this space!

About Lucy Byatt

I'm a translator, from Italian into English. I also teach Italian Renaissance history and write.
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