Through the Eyes of a Translator: Opening Horizons with Books

A good book changes everything. It eats into your day, swallowing up hours that you would normally use for eating, working and sleeping. And long after the book is finished, you still find yourself recalling characters and scenes that resonate with you in a special way. Even if you don’t think of yourself as a big reader, I bet you’ve experienced this at least a few times in your life.

I have a secret for you: this happens to me all the time. You see, I work as a translator from Russian into English. I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years. And because the English-language publishing industry is so dominant, Russian-speaking authors frequently contact me looking for a translator. I probably get sent a new book to review every month. Lots of fantasy, science fiction and romance from new writers I can guarantee you’ve never heard of. Unfortunately, I have to turn a lot of these authors down because I’m already so busy. But I believe in the power of a good book, so I always try to point them in the direction of someone who can help.

You probably know (or can guess) that it’s hard to get a book published, no matter who you are. It’s a hundred times harder if you’re writing in a language other than English. Just 3% of all books published in the United States are translated from other languages. And if you just look at fiction, that number drops to less than 1%.

Given that it’s so hard to break in, why do foreign authors want to get published in English?

Recognition: Your book has to be available in English if you want to have a chance at winning some of the most prestigious awards.

Expansion into other languages: Publishers in many countries order translations into their local languages from English.

Audience: You can reach more readers (and make more money) if your work is available in English.

Fair enough. But why should we care about foreign authors getting published in English?

Marketplace of ideas: For hundreds of years, English has been the language where important things happen. That gives us all kinds of advantages in science, technology, and education. Keeping that marketplace open to people who don’t write in English benefits us all.

Current events: Reading the news can be scary, but cracking open a book written by someone far away can give you valuable insights into the world we live in.

Choice: More voices means more choice. Like mysteries? Maybe you think you’ve read them all, but I doubt it. Check out a Finnish crime novel or one of Boris Akunin’s historical detective dramas. If sci-fi is more your thing, take a look at Chinese author Liu Cixin. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed!

And finally, if you’re interested in how translators bring books from one language into another, I recommend reading this interview with Ken Liu, a Chinese translator and award-winning author in his own right.

By: Elizabeth Adams

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