Freshly brewed: The “Diversity Report 2009” – Cultural diversity in translations of books: Mapping fiction authors across Europe.
November 10, 2009 by ruediger

Books allow ideas and stories to travel, and translations are the vehicle of choice. Oddly enough for such a fundamental mechanism at the core of culture and cultural diversity, we have little precise knowledge, and certainly no data based analysis about the patterns formed by those flows, and even less about the forces driving or hindering the exchange.

After having tried to map the flows of translation across Europe at the most general level in the “Diversity Report 2008”, the present analysis has the ambition to break down those general observations to the level of individual (fiction) authors and their work, and track how they move across languages, or how they do not. Metaphorically speaking, we try to get from a general physical map of the European landscape of translations to a road map.

Findings include:

  1. Books translated from English represent on average about one third of the bestselling authors and titles across the continents, with only Sweden being significant exception;
  2. The UK bestseller market is by far the most averse to translations.
  3. As one consequence, national preferences show a much wider variety of – particularly domestic – authors and books, representing on average another solid third of the top segment, to the effect that countries’ reading preferences seem to be much more diverse, than ‘homogeneous’ across Europe;
  4. Only a small group of authors writing in ‘other’ languages than English or the respective local majority vernacular succeed with translations of their work in a larger number of markets and countries, with some like Larsson and Zafón out-competing their Anglo-Saxon peers;
  5. The very top segment in bestseller lists is a very narrow segment indeed, propelling just 2 or 3 authors in their own category for each country, with the singularity of this high peak marking a significant distinction between markets, and remarkably, it is the UK and Sweden, or two markets with a particularly high percentage of domestic authors on top, where the entire curve of the bestselling authors is considerably flatter than in countries with lesser impact of domestic authors;
  6. At least for the past few years, a recognizable number of European, non-English writing bestseller authors evolved and found a broad mainstream readership across markets and languages, yet exclusively authors from “Western” (or “old”) Europe, forming an exclusive club which is almost impossible to access for authors e.g. from CEE.This West-East “one way street” described above is the only pattern where West & East forms meaningful categories, just as “big” and “small” languages and markets of origin seem to play a far smaller role than often assumed;
  7. While in EUWest, no systematic distinction between a (‘high’) literary elite and eventual access to the top bestselling segment across Europe through translations seems to prevail, this is clearly the case for authors from CEE who made their way to the European literary ‘elite’, but as niche authors, not as authors found access to the European mainstream book readership.
  8. The diversity in fiction bestsellers in terms of treated topics, background of the authors, tonalities and styles is huge, and many of the most successful authors are initially ‘made by readers’, and not planned, contradicting, in the initial career of authors and their successful books, the popular notion of bestsellers being engineered and homogenous.

These findings come with a few provocative insights.

  • The market for rights and licenses which is currently the core driver for translations, does not take in the full spectrum and diversity of what is on offer from authors across Europe, nor what seems to be reader’s preferences. Instead, only a limited set of authors from a restricted set of backgrounds are given the full access to the European reading markets, despite the fact that the recent careers of European non-English writing authors provide strong indications that an appreciative readership for such a wide diversity may exist. The funding policies for translations lack the information and the tools for a realistic assessment of their efficiency.
  • The data compiled and, at least partly, analyzed for this report suggest that a more differentiated and realistic picture of the cultural dimensions of the European book and reading markets can actually be developed;
  • The ambivalent role of English as a bottleneck and as a driving force:
    All general translation data show the evidence of how little is translated into English, if compared to other target languages; and yet more of the ‘elite’ authors are available in English than what is generally assumed. English therefore plays a significant role as a transfer language (together with French and German), a factor of growing importance as the readiness of reading literature in certain foreign languages (most often this means: in English) seems to spread. In many markets, English reading of books written not only in English, but in any language seems to expand, and new digital technologies will drive this development forcefully in the near future.
  • For policy makers, this brings up the critical question of either continuing to focus on translations between the many languages, or to also emphasize lead programs of translations into English.
  • The potential for innovation by digital:
    As digital distribution currently picks up momentum with electronic reading devices and most new titles being rapidly available not only in print, but also in digital formats, there is a strong likeliness that books in translation as well as in their original editions (or in one transfer language, notably in English) will spread much more easily than in the past; this aspect has the potential to develop into a “game changing” mechanism for all kinds of niche reading, hence for literary translations, within a relatively short period of time.

The full “Diversity Report 2009” is ready for download at www.wischenbart.com/translation .

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