Monday musings on Australian literature: Translated fiction, Australian-style

Having just read and reviewed Linda Jaivin’s Quarterly essay, Lost in translation: In praise of a plural world, I thought I’d research the state of translated fiction in Australia. Jaivin doesn’t spend a lot of time of this particular issue, but in her concluding plea she says:

Publishers need to consider how to prise open their lists in order to let more translation in.

In other words, while she argues that students should learn foreign language/s, she also recognises that we can’t be across all languages. We should therefore have easy access to translated literature. However, in my experience and I’m sure that of Australian blogger Tony, who specialises in translated fiction, it is not easy to find material here and so, all too often, we turn to overseas publishers and distributors.

That said, there are some local sources of translated fiction. And there are – and have been – Australian translators of foreign fiction (besides, of course, Linda Jaivin). I have written before on this blog about poets Rosemary Dobson and David Campbell who translated Russian poetry into English.

The easiest type of translated fiction to find in Australia is of course the classics. It is not hard to find Russian, French and other classics in English in most decent bookshops. It is also relatively easy to find translated works by the better-known contemporary writers from non-English cultures. Random House Australia, for example, has published Japanese writers like Haruki Murakami and Yoko Ogawa. But they do not make it easy to find their translated books. They categorise fiction by genre/form, so if you search under crime, say, you will find translated works by, for instance, the Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø. It should be easy enough for them to add a category for translated works to help those of us who’d like to seek out non-English-centric works.

Many of Australia’s smaller independent publishers also publish translated fiction. For example, Text Publishing, probably the largest of the small presses, is currently publishing Diego Marani (whose The last of the Vostyachs I reviewed recently). On Text’s Fiction page is the category Translated, which takes readers to a list of around 60 titles.

Other small presses publishing translated works include:

  • Brandl + Schlesinger lists translated works as one of its focuses. Its list includes Russian author Igor Gelbach, and Hungarians István Örkény and György Dalos.
  • Giramondo specialises in “innovative fiction” and, while it is one of the smaller publishing houses, it includes translated fiction in its list including a work by French-Australian Catherine Rey.
  • Scribe, which has won the Small Publisher of the Year award four times since 2006, publishes foreign language authors such as Dutch writer Gerbrand Bakker. Bakker won the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for his novel The Twin, which is one of his books published by Scribe.

I have to admit that I don’t know all these authors, but it’s great to know they are here!

As I was researching for this post, I came across the website for the Australian bookseller, Booktopia. Of course, as an Australian reader, I’ve known about them for some time, but I was pleasantly surprised when they popped up in my Google search for “translated fiction Australia”. Booktopia, I discovered, do, like Text Publishing, include translated fiction in their side-bar categories though, intriguingly, the click-through categorisation goes like this:

|- Fiction
|- – Fiction in Translation and Short Stories (in a box labelled Subjects)
|- – – Fiction in Translation

Odd, that, the grouping of “Fiction in Translation” and “Short Stories” but at least Booktopia provides a path for readers to find translated works. Go Booktopia I say! They currently have 1862 titles in their list. There’s a lot of crime there, but they also carry classics, popular contemporary fiction (by such writers as Allende and Zafón), and books from independent publishers like Peirene Press, which is well regarded as a publisher of European literature in translation.

It’s probably a bit late for Christmas shopping, but why not include some translated works in your summer (or holiday) reading plan? Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic of sourcing and reading translated literature.

18 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Translated fiction, Australian-style

  1. As you say, it’s not always easy to find new translated fiction, and Random House is a great example. Looking for new releases on their web-site is a case of searching for a needle in a landslide of kids’ books and the works of celebrity chefs…

    While there are honourable exceptions, a lot of the publishers here just give us what came out in the US or the UK 6-12 months ago anyway. When you add the price factor to that, it’s not hard to see why Australian lovers of translated fiction would probably avoid the local market.

    Myself? I am lucky enough to get a lot of review copies (from overseas – Australian publishers don’t really bother with me), and I’ve hardly bought any translated books here for years. The last one I bought, Dante’s ‘Inferno’ in a Penguin Classics edition, pretty much backs up your point…

    • Thanks, Tony, for confirming what I gathered was the case from my brief forays into translated fiction. Most that I’ve reviewed on the blog, which is not a lot I admit, I’ve sourced from overseas.

  2. Australian Kit (Christopher) KELEN poet/writer/teacher – at the University of Macau – is involved in all kinds of literary translations with his students – including of the poetry of many of Australia’s finest – into Chinese.

  3. I really would like to read more works in translation but there is so much in English I want to read it is hard to keep up, but I try. US publishing doesn’t make it easy though since only 3% of books published in the US are in translation.

  4. Nava Semel is a great Israeli writer whose works (‘And the Rat Laughed’, ‘Paper Bride’) have been translated from Hebrew into English, published by Hybrid Publishers in Melbourne.

  5. There Are some great small press appear these days and like tony says shame so hard to find translated fiction on large publishers website I’d be for it being a separate section making it easier to be seen and looked at and maybe that would help publisher push great books the guardian recently had a publisher bit for the favourite books and ones that maybe didn’t so as well as they thought needless to say they ones that failed were mainly translations

  6. Thanks for dealing with an Interesting and a much needed to be discussed topic, WG. With translated books, I’m sure there are something lost, but much to gain. Many words and notions in one language do not translate, or don’t even exist in another culture. But, I still think we’re more enriched by this cross-cultural literary endeavors.

    As we draw close to the main event, I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas and a bright new 2014!

  7. Happy Xmas down there to you, Gummie. I’m on various newsletter lists (which help) and then I also count on other bloggers for tips when it comes to translated fiction.

    • Happy Christmas to you too Guy … and I agree that bloggers are a great source of recommendations for books that are off the beaten track, like translated fiction. What would be do without them (us!)

  8. For a long time, I avoided reading translated fiction. I much preferred reading originals and somehow did not “trust” translators to render works well enough to be worth my time. Being a native French-speaker and fluent in English, I do have access to a lot of fiction… I also did a Spanish literature degree to add a third language. And then I literally fell in love with Swedish literature… And no, I did not learn Swedish. I read Swedish authors in French and English translation. I do have my favorite translators and I check who the translator is before I buy the book. And when you know that one of your favorite authors just published something new, you have the dubious pleasure of the sometime agonizingly long wait for the availability of the translation… I am now waiting for the latest memoir by Per Olov Enquist, published in March in Stockholm. No sign of the French translation yet from the usual French publisher; I do a regular search on the web to see if it might be out. The German translation seems to be, as German newspapers are talking about it these days.

    • You capture how I feel Sylvie – the not wanting the mediator between oneself and the work, but as you say, even multi-lingual people cannot be across them all. I tend to be aware of some of the translators but as most modern tend to be – though there are exceptions I know – only translated once into English, we often don’t have a choice if we really want to read a work. Or, the choice is to read it or not! With so much to read, I guess it’s sensible to choose not if the translator doesn’t appeal.

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