Translating a genre: the Historical Novel

This article was published in Historical Novels Review (Issue 65, August 2013, pp.10-11); see link here 

Language is key to discovering other countries and communities and sharing their lives in the present, not to say centuries ago. We can, of course, read historical novels, many of them brilliant, set in foreign countries and written by Anglophone authors. The breadth and depth of secondary sources (in English) available to them is growing all the time, especially now that the academic study of history has moved towards a more nuanced, intimate and inclusive study of the past. For all that, unless an author is steeped in that “other” culture, and – I would argue – can read its language, there will inevitably be aspects of that society that remain elusive. This is where translated historical novels can prove so valuable – if the translation lives up to expectations. As Edith Grossman, a leading literary translator, writes in her excellent book Why Translation Matters, “Translation expands our ability to explore through literature the thoughts and feelings of people from another society or another time. It permits us to savour the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own perceptions and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.”1 No one would disagree, yet fiction translated into English continues to represent but a tiny percentage of what we read.

The European Union Prize for Literature serves to highlight notable works of fiction, forming a platform to promote the circulation of literature within Europe, primarily through translation. Since it was founded in 2009, all EU member-states have been eligible to compete, approximately once every three years. Among the prize-winning authors, several have written historical novels. A prizewinner in 2010, Goce Smilevski’s novel, Freud’s Sister, appeared in translation in 2012 (Macedonian; Christina E. Kramer, Penguin). But Smilevski is in the minority. Others have not made the “transition” into English. Two winning historical novels that struck me were Török Tükör by Viktor Horvàth, about the Hungarian city of Pécs under Ottoman rule in the 16th century, and Palveränd by the Estonian Tiit Aleksejev, a story of the Crusades in the last years of the 11th century. Short of learning Hungarian or Estonian, I can only hope that the books will one day be published in English.

freud's sister

Arguably, the barriers to translation into English are even higher for historical novels since some editors seem determined not to challenge us. Admittedly, publishers have to be sure that the novel to be translated meets the exacting standards of native English readers of historical fiction (standards that have been boosted by the arrival of big-hitters such as Mantel). Readers’ expectations are high, particularly at the literary end of the publishing spectrum, which is where the translated novel usually sits. A publisher must be doubly sure of fulfilling these requisites before investing in a translation. Indeed, translation costs are often seen as the proverbial “straw” that sways the decision whether to publish or not.2 This is particularly shortsighted in view of readers’ declared interests in exploring unfamiliar historical settings, getting that different angle, reassessing preconceptions. Some critics have even accused publishers of underestimating their audience, since readers are not afraid of translations, as is sometimes asserted.3

The new technologies and new media will certainly change this area of publishing as well, making the process simpler. Translators and authors can work together to bring a novel to the market as an e-book. This type of relationship is still in its infancy, but there is enormous potential for further development, provided, of course, that quality is carefully maintained. Amazoncrossing was set up in 2010 and is already having a significant impact. AmazonCrossing’s goal is “to bring more of the world’s great authors to a global audience” and, after just three years, it is already publishing more books in translation than the top independent presses in America, with 24 books published so far in 2013 compared to Dalkey Archive Press’s nineteen.In late June, AmazonCrossing made headlines by selling one million copies (print, audio and Kindle) of Oliver Pötzsch’s historical novel series, Hangman’s Daughter (German; Lee Chadeayne). The real problem here is retaining a high quality of translation, and a quick glance at the Amazon reviews for some of these books shows how difficult this can be, especially since, not knowing a foreign language, we have to trust that the translator will respect the author’s choice of register and terminology.

National literary prizes offer rich pickings for choosing books for translation, and this is where many editors start their search. However, there are several prizes at the other end of the process: namely for fiction already translated into English. Two of these are the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize (IFFP) awarded annually for a translated work published in the United Kingdom, while the Best Translated Book Award (BTBA) is “an opportunity to honor and celebrate the translators, editors, publishers, and other literary supporters who help make literature from other cultures available to American readers in the United States.”

trieste-dasa-drndicThe shortlisted titles for the IFFP in 2013 included two historical novels: Andrés Neuman’s Traveller of the Century (Spanish; Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia, Pushkin Press) was highly commended, and Trieste by Daša Drndić (Croatian; Ellen Elias-Bursac, MacLehose) won the IFFP Readers’ Prize. Elif Shafak, one of this year’s IFFP judges and also an award-winning novelist, commented: “In a world where a deeper cross-cultural understanding is a rarity and literature in translation is still not generating the interest it deserves, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize swims against the tide.”

Chad Post (University of Rochester, NY) set up the blog Three Percent in 2007, and the first edition of the Best Translated Book Award followed in 2008. In the past two years, shortlisted historical novels have included A New Finnish Grammar by Diego Marani (Italian; Judith Landry, Dedalus), Kafka’s Leopards by Moacyr Scliar (Portuguese; Thomas O. Beebee, Texas Tech University Press), and LightningA Novel by Jean Echenoz (French; Linda Coverdale, The New Press). A title to look forward to later this year will be Echenoz’s novel, 1914 (French; Linda Coverdale, The New Press). Other prizes are gradually including more translated fiction, as in the case of the Man Booker International Prize, but several still exclude translated works – a case in point being the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.

Returning to the Three Percent website, this is the figure that used to be quoted as the percentage of translated fiction (although this includes drama and poetry, thus lowering the figures for fiction even further). However, literary translation has unquestionably been revitalised in the past few years. There is a new optimism, and that percentage is slowly creeping up. This was confirmed by a report from Literature Across Borders (published in December 2012, its data refer to three sample years: 2000, 2005, and 2008). It concludes that 2.5% of all publications and 4.5% of fiction, poetry, and drama (literature) in the United Kingdom are translations.5 I was interested to note that the Historical Novels Review itself confirms that the “three percent” barrier may have been slightly dented, with 3.7% of books reviewed in the last seven issues being translations.6

4The past fifteen years or so have also seen the appearance of several independent houses specialising in translation. Exemplary publishers like Harvill Secker have been joined by Arcadia Books, MacLehose Press (Quercus), Peirene Press, And Other Stories, Europa Editions and others already mentioned. These smaller presses are championing some of the most innovative authors from around the world, and helping to chip away at our linguaphobic barriers. I asked Gary Pulsifer (Arcadia) about José Eduardo Agualusa. He told me that he met “José Eduardo at the Lisbon Book Fair some years ago and was intrigued by Creole. To my mind it’s one of Agualusa’s best, if early, books. It should have been a contender for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, but Agualusa (and his translator Daniel Hahn) got there in the end of course, with The Book of Chameleons.” Both books are set in Angola, the first in 1868 while the latter is more or less contemporary… and is narrated by a gecko. Quercus recently introduced English-speaking readers to Mikhail Shishkin’s work, The Light and the Dark (Russian; Andrew Bromfield, 2013). Although epistolary rather than purely historical in form, this novel is clearly a major addition in terms of the English-speaking reader’s access to contemporary Russian literature. Lastly, Peirene will publish Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts (Polish; Philip Boehm) in September, an acclaimed Polish bestseller about the Holocaust.

altai-coverOur reading habits may be on the verge of becoming a little less insular, but we still lag far behind other countries. A few figures sadly make the point quite clearly: “in Poland a staggering 46% of books published are titles in translation, in Germany over 12%, in Spain around 24% and in France around 15%.”7 It is a truism that translation allows literature to travel. We appear to want to take the journey, but are we being offered the right destinations? With new publishing developments on our side, readers should demand to read the best of world literature, including historical fiction. So casting aside that over-used cliché “lost in translation,” why not start with Altai (Italian; Shaun Whiteside, Verso 2013), which was recently described by Ian Sansom as “unputdownable…historical fiction as a form of cultural protest.” The authors, collectively known as Wu Ming, could probably teach translators a thing or two in that respect.

1. Edith Grossman, Why Translation Matters, Yale University Press, 2010, p.14.
2. Suggested rates are published by the Translators’ Association, part of the UK Society of Authors; the American ALTA and ATA occasionally run compensation surveys. English PEN recently launched grants to support translation, and some EU funds are also available.
3. Books in Translation: It’s Time for Others to Join the Fight, Publishing Perspectives, February 15, 2013 [accessed 26 June 2013]
4. Chad Post, Three Percent, 6 June 2013. [accessed 25 June 2013]
5. Dr Jasmine Donahaye, Three percent? Publishing data and statistics on translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland, December 2012. Literature Across Frontiers, Aberystwyth University, UK. Available online from [accessed 25 June 2013]
6. These data were very kindly supplied by Sarah Johnson.
7. See note 3.

About the contributor: LUCINDA BYATT is HNR’s features coordinator. She teaches courses on Early Modern Europe and translates from Italian.

Translation: 2012

It is traditional to sit down, at the junction of years, and look back at memorable events that have occurred in the previous twelve months. So, for what it’s worth, here are my top translation-related events for 2012.

Books read:


Marcello Fois, translated by Patrick Creagh, MacLehose Press, 2012, £16.99, hb, 221pp, 9781906694005

Returning home, late one night, Felice Stocchino and his young son, Samuele, are refused a glass of water at a neighbour’s house. It is an act that the neighbour and his entire family will pay for in blood. This is Sardinia, in the early 1900s, where honour is everything. Fois was born in Sardinia and is one of a gifted group of Italian writers known as “Group 13”, who explore the cultural roots of their various regions.  His descriptions are intensely evocative and nature is at the heart of the violent legends of his homeland, deeply imbued in memory and folklore.  Samuel’s mother knows, even before he is born, that her son has a heart shaped like a wolf’s head, a murderer’s heart. While still a boy, he is saved from death by a juniper bush huddled against the steep rock walls of a ravine. He is found by Mariangela, who later becomes the only woman he ever loves. Fois follows Stocchino through the North African campaigns of 1911–12 and later to the Carso Front of the Great War where the Italian army becomes entrenched for years against the Austro-Hungarian troops. Stocchino has a peculiar affinity with the bayonet, indeed any knife blade: his skill as the agent of death, almost inviting his victims to impale themselves, becomes legendary, as does his seeming immortality.  These wars are just the prelude to the bloodbath that follows, back in Arzana. Fois recounts these violent events in a style that rivals the parched ground of the Sardinian hills.  The memory of the abyss is both a story of the darkest side of human nature, “the snarl of vengeance”, and an evocation of the immortal figure of the outlaw in Sardinian history and the price of honour.


Jean-Pierre Ohl, translated by Mike Mitchell, Dedalus, 2012, £9.99, pbk, 286pp, 9781907650741

Some books are real surprise and this is one of them. What is at heart a detective story becomes in turn a love story, a tribute to friendship and courage, an ode to books and booksellers and to nineteenth-century literature. Perhaps strangest of all, Ohl clearly has an intimate knowledge of Islay and Jura, including the whirlpool of Corryvreckan, as well as of Edinburgh. The story is mainly set in the 1950s when Mary Guthrie, a brilliant English postgraduate from Islay, decides to write a doctoral thesis on Sir Thomas Urquhart, the Scottish author, mathematician and translator of Rabelais, who supported the Royalist cause in Scotland and then died in exile in 1660. The Urquharts – both present and past – play a leading role in the story, as does a renegade catholic priest, Ebenezer Krook, with whom Mary, rather improbably, has an affair. But against Krook’s unfolding family story, the most improbable events start to feel quite normal – even down to Eric Blair, aka George Orwell, who visited Jura regularly in the 1940s, being cast in a life-saver’s role. While researching her doctorate, Mary visits the Urquhart family’s crumbling home in Cromarty where the events of the Spanish Civil War, Sir Thomas Urquhart’s treasure, a Renaissance desk with a coded mechanism for opening its thirty-two drawers, not to mention servants whose nicknames are inspired by golf jargon and a voyeur maiden aunt are just some of the bizarre details invented by Ohl. For all its Gothic twists, this is a book filled with humour, acute observations of character and place, and literary citations worthy of a professional bookseller – Ohl’s other career. It has been flawlessly translated by Mike Mitchell in what deserves to become another of the latter’s award-winning works.

Events attended:

A London Review of Books translation workshop* with Howard Curtis in September was a definitely a highlight of 2012.  It was a hot Saturday afternoon, probably the sort of day best spent idling in Regent’s Park rather than in a rather stuffy office on the top floor of the LRB offices in Bury Place, just round the corner from the British Museum.  There were eight of us, I think: a mixed crowd, some professional translators and some just there for interest (but with a brilliant ear for a good solution).  We had submitted our translations of a short piece – taken, as I later learned, from the closing pages of Beppe Fenoglio’s posthumously published novel, Una questione privata (1963). Howard’s translation, A Private Affair, was published by Hesperus in 2006.  It is an extraordinary passage, with an urgency and pace to it that once read, you don’t easily forget.  It took us nearly three hours to make our way through the first three or four pages of our translations, comparing, discussing, agreeing to disagree, and marvelling at the different solutions produced.  In the end, there was just time for Howard to read through his own published translation which successfully captured the urgency and the thundering pace of the concluding paragraphs, but even he admitted that a translation was never finished: there is always room for improvement!

* The new programme of LRB translation workshops for 2013 is now available here.

Translation was one of the key strands of the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival.  Sadly, I was away for several events that I would have enjoyed, but I’m so glad I managed to hear David Bellos talk about his book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? (Penguin, 2011).

BellosAs Professor of French and Italian and comparative Literature at Princeton, Bellos also directs the Translation and Intercultural Communication program there. Intercultural communication is at the heart of the book: nothing is untranslatable, or if it is it is a fraud or fantasy. Ranging from the expectations of translation (you are not translating words, but the force and context of their expression) to the need to dispel the myths of translation (apparently this book was inspired by Bellos’s infuriation when a parent told me that translation was no substitute for the original – clearly it is, why else would you do it!), Bellos provides a witty and brilliant summary of a task that can be either supremely demanding or mundane, but remains absolutely essential. With a nod to technology, Bellos even concedes that Google Translate is “spectacular”, but reminds us that it relies 100% on the work of professional and/or reasonably competent human translators!

Bellos recently found himself in the position of having his own work translated, always a strange experience for a translator, when this book appeared in French (Le Poisson et la bananier. L’histoire fabuleuse de la traduction, Paris: Flammarion, 2012, translated by Daniel Loayza). Bellos and his translator spoke about their collaboration at the Salon du Livre in Paris last spring (see Nataly Kelly’s article here).

So as another year of translation closes, I look forward to many more stimulating events and work to come: my translation of Antonio Foscari’s history of the frescos in the villa of La Malcontenta will appear this summer (Lars Muller), and I am continuing to work on Marzio Barbagli’s history of suicide (Congedarsi dal mondo. Il suicidio in occidente e in oriente. Il Mulino 2009) for Polity (due out in 2014).

Foscari Frescos