A Home for Translation and Translated Novels

There’s publishing and then there’s publishing translation. The second is so much more than the first as there are so many more stages and players: principally the publisher has to find a talented translator, whose contribution is little understood particularly in the English-speaking world where translated novels are comparatively rare. The publisher also must negotiate the acquisition of the translation rights for the target language, possibly through an agent. The translation takes time and this creates long and complex lead-ins. As a translator who has often failed to meet deadlines, I can, without causing offence, assert that translations are not always delivered on time. In short, it’s a sector that should be visited only by those whose passion and patience exceed their common sense.

There has been a slight increase in the British output of translation, and this could be a good moment to set up a platform to promote, explain and debate translation and the benefits it could bring, especially in a Brexit Britain intent upon cutting itself off from its European roots.


With the assistance of The Space and Creative Scotland we’ve set up such a platform and called it Think in Translation. In seven podcast episodes, we’re interviewing translators, translated writers, editors, booksellers and other publishers to talk about what translation means to them and why they engage with it so passionately. We’ll also be publishing translation-themed blog posts every second week.

When we say “we”, we mean Vagabond Voices, half of whose output is in translation, but this website is not just for us, we hope; if it’s successful, it will be a meeting place or debating chamber not only those people mentioned above, but others such as rights-agents whose difficult work is to facilitate the sale of translation rights, and of course the most important people, the readers of translated works.

Translation data often tends to be dated, but we can see clear patterns. First of all, anglophone countries have translated very little – a remarkably consistent figure of around 3% in the latter part of the last century (Britain slightly more and America slightly less) – but since 2000 there appears to have been a slight increase to over 4%. This is still dwarfed by the 25% in Italy, 20% in France and somewhere in the teens in Germany. Translation from English is phenomenally high for a single language: 40% of all translations worldwide even back in 1980, and 50–70% of all European translation.


“Anglophone countries have translated very little – a remarkably consistent figure of around 3% in the latter part of the last century (Britain slightly more and America slightly less) – but since 2000 there appears to have been a slight increase to over 4%.”


It may be appear to be a significant advantage to have such an imbalance in cultural trade, but actually it cuts us out of the conversation. The English-speaking world has become one that isn’t listening and for some time has been losing the ability to listen to anything other than itself.

We should immediately make clear that translation sites do exist: one is The Untranslated, on which the blogger’s enquiring mind advocates translation into English of the greatest and most eccentric literary works around the world, which to date have somehow evaded the translator’s pen. Another is the aptly named Words without Borders, and provides essential information on new translated titles as well as what we could call writers without borders who move around a great deal, sometimes evading censorship at home and even writing in languages that are not their own. These sites and others provide important information to readers, but what we propose is something different. Translated novels will be here, but literary translation itself and the associated practitioners will be at the heart of what we do.


We want to promote translation and its benefits, and we want to make translation more familiar. We want people to see translation as an integral part of their lives.

This may sound outlandish or more simply overambitious, but this only demonstrates how far our experience of language has taken us from a healthy linguistic ecology – so far that we’re not aware of what we’ve lost. Translation is as old as humanity itself – initially it was oral translation, which we now tend to call interpreting. Sociolinguists often claim that human beings started with one language, in common with the biblical allegory of the Tower of Babel, but modern science has demonstrated that the human brain is designed to be bilingual or multilingual. By the time the fully formed human being had evolved from whatever preceded, a plurality of languages must have existed. Initially language communities would have been small and fragmented, and their great variety started to diminish a long time ago. Empires like the Roman and Persian ones obliterated languages. Highly successful languages, such as Aramaic, have disappeared, and other minor ones, such as English, Spanish and Portuguese, have spread around the world. In the last thirty or forty years, English has expanded into the role of unchallenged global lingua franca.

Throughout this history of diminishing linguistic diversity, translation has been an essential part of communication, but its importance declined as areas of uniform monolingual social organisation grew along with the modern nation state. Yet even now three-quarters of the world is bilingual (and David Crystal has suggested that half the world is trilingual), so translation is not yet an endangered activity; it’s more that in some nations it has become almost invisible, and this is reflected in the way we read.


"We want to promote translation and its benefits, and we want to make translation more familiar. We want people to see translation as an integral part of their lives."


Of course languages are not differing codes that can express the same things more or less unchanged in meaning or even nuance; they are ways of seeing the world and they see the world differently because they have categorised the world in completely different manners. This is not simply a matter of vocabulary but also and perhaps more importantly of grammar, which defines our attitude to time and action. Translation is not, therefore, an exact science, but rather a craft that is gained through experience.

The translator’s intentions can influence the translation: I don’t mean intentional mistranslation in order to deceive, though that happens (we’ll publish a blog post about this on Thursday, 5 April), but rather the intention to replicate an artistic experience as opposed to the intention to produce a key to the original (as in the case of legal, administrative and financial texts where only the simple meaning matters) or an ideological document (religious or political text where the persuasive or polemical content matters). Translators can have fundamentally different ideas of what a good literary translation should be. Translators, often set in their ways and certainly well acquainted with the arguments, will quite possibly find this debate less interesting than will the readers, who could be fascinated to discover the shaky foundations on which translation is founded (suffice it for them to compare two published translations of the same classic literary text). There are good and bad translations, of course, but there are also equally good but substantially different ways of translating the same work (as I’ll discuss in a later blog post).


This introduction is not the place to go into all the problems translation can throw up. Hopefully this will be achieved once we get the debate going, and we don’t want to be overly theoretical about it, as the examination of specific texts can also be rewarding. It appears that many cultures have been aware of the general problems for centuries and millennia, but each generation will deal with translation in a slightly different manner.

While we’re in the business of promoting and celebrating translators and translation, we accept that it is also proper that translators are occasionally invisible (particularly when the reader is busy suspending disbelief), as their task is to present the authors and not themselves to the reader. And yet the actual words are the translators’ guided by the authors’, so it is also proper that the reader recalls the presence of this intricate and generous craft.

In conclusion, translation is complex and multifaceted, and its functions are essential to linguistic coexistence and cross-pollination. We wish to explore everything from the process of translation itself to what it’s like for an author to read their work in translation, to what influences a bookseller to buy a particular translation and what translated books are most popular amongst readers right now. It’s a broad topic and I can’t predict where Think in Translation will take the discussion we hope it will spark, but I look forward to watching it unfold.

About the author: Allan Cameron is a writer and translator as well as the founder of Vagabond Voices. Read his full bio. 


Think in Translation Podcast Episode 1: We start the series with Allan Cameron, the founder of Vagabond Voices, translator of 24 books, and a writer himself. His most recent novel, Cinico, is a fictional translation of an Italian journalist's travelogue in Scotland. Allan talks about his favourite work of translation, the role translated work has in politics and shaping national thought, and the nuances involved in the act of translation itself.