In Translation – Translated Fiction and The Man Booker International Prize

 I know I’m four days late to the game but I felt that a post about the Man Booker International prize couldn’t go amiss.


man booker prizeWhat is particularly remarkable about this year’s winner of the Man Booker International Prize is that it has been translated by Deborah Smith, a 28-year-old, who started teaching herself Korean in 2010, aged 21, in order to translate more works by Korean authors into English. I am so impressed at her dedication and passion for Korean literature.
As I’m sure you are aware – or possibly not? – the Man Booker International Prize is awarded to a work originally written in any language but available to read in English i.e. translated works. It’s a fantastic way of promoting works from other countries and getting people reading outside their own “culture”. And what is particularly special to see is that the prize money is split between translator and author. Translations of works of fiction are news works in their own right, since the translator cannot simply translate the words. There are certain words, phrases and ideas that simply do not exist in the target language (language being translated into). There are concepts and cultural ideas that would be unknown to an english speaking audience. The translator must, therefore, work hard to make the story accessible to its target audience, whilst being faithful to the author’s style and voice. It is no mean feat. I can say that as someone who has dabbled in literary translation myself. It’s challenging, wonderful and hair-tearingly difficult in equal measures!

On Translated Works…

But the news of the Man Booker International Prize has got me thinking about reading in translation in general. Having studied Spanish and Italian at university, I’ve read my fair share of books. And my fair share of translations (Shh! Sometimes I read them in English too!) However, in English speaking countries I think there is still both a lack of awareness of translated fiction – how many people are aware that the Shadow Of The Wind is originally a Spanish novel? And there is also a suspicion of translated fiction – the idea that it is somehow more highbrow and scary. Yet, in other countries reading works translated from English into their mother tongue is completely normal and accepted willingly.

What is it that we fear from translated works? As Liesl Schillinger wrote recently, Every act of reading is an act of translation. We impose our own worldview and life experiences upon every book we read. Therefore my reading experience will always be completely unique, reflecting my unique background and personality. Books should just be books, and not separated out into English fiction and translated fiction. In fact, in my original blog I had separated out English literature, Spanish literature and Italian literature but I had a rethink and that just seemed crazy to me. I read books because they interest me and because I’m keen to find out what happens. For me there’s no difference between reading a book in Italian and reading an Italian book in English – if the translation is good, of course!

Firstly, we should be kinder towards these often ignored translators, their work is difficult and often goes unrewarded. And secondly, dear reader, go out and widen your book choices. If you only ever read English classics, go buy an Inspector Montalbano (they’re fantastic! The details about the delicious food he eats is such a lovely touch of Sicilian life). Don’t shy away from translated fiction, it needs love too 🙂

What do you think? What books have you read in translation? If you haven’t read any, what’s stopping you?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *