The Divided Passions of Translation Readers

As mentioned in our previous blog post, we’re now wrapping up Series 1 of our Think in Translation podcast and blog. At the start of this project we sent out a two-question survey with the aim of gaining insight into what interests people about translation and translated books. In the blog post that follows, our founder Allan Cameron explores the responses to the second question of our survey:

What type of translated novels do you most like?

The responses we received were varied, confirming our hunch that the translated novel is a niche that contains many niches within it: sub-niches, if you like.

Quite a few respondents had regional preferences: South America, Europe and Eastern Europe (in order of popularity). Others had linguistic ones: Russian and Spanish. Genre preferences also existed: literary fiction, historical novels, Bildungsroman. There was only one preference for a specific kind of writer and that was for women writers, and only one preference for a specific author, who was Bolaño.*

One respondent was happily interested in “all kinds” of translated novels, winning the heart of a publisher who is always pleased by catholic tastes. They make things a lot easier, and are the antidote to the endless search for the next big thing which drives so many publishers crazy. But I sympathise with the regional and linguistic preferences because, leaving aside the languages I know, I read more translations from Russian and French, and the dominance of South America does not surprise me, though each literature must by definition embrace huge diversities and go through endless movements and countermovements. The current emphasis on black, female, gay and increasingly a range of sexual identities reflects important developments in our societies, stages on the way to a true human universality, which still remains far off and is perhaps best represented by literature itself.


However, the linguistic distinctiveness of these identities may be overstated, just as the distinctiveness of languages is often understated. The Russian author from Dagestan and winner of the Russian Booker, Alisa Ganieva, pretended that the author of her first book was a man and chose the picture of a suitably handsome fellow countryman for the cover. The book was very successful and reviewers commented on the virile Dagestani prose, though they were less happy with her when she revealed her true identity. Our written words contain our social backgrounds and personal histories no doubt, but ultimately they are also just themselves – a text which stands or falls by its own merits and demerits. Besides writers are often accomplished chameleons, as in the case of Ganieva.

Returning to the survey, some of our respondents actually went into details about the kind of book they wanted, irrespective of where it was written or in what language. A few were concerned with the quality of the translation (“… so well translated that you can’t tell it was written in another language”) and others more interested in the original material (“character-driven, socially observant, existential stories that are either funny or despairing”).


All in all, the results of question two in our survey are what we might have expected, except that current preferences for sexual identity were, I think, underrepresented, and there was no reference to the distinction between the classic translated novel and the contemporary one. The range of opinions was reassuring, and showed genuine interest in translated fiction. The survey is a fitting end to our first series examining translations from diverse standpoints. But it also demonstrates that we’ve only scratched the surface. Our two short questions show that there is a public interested in engaging with these issues and we must invent new and more transparent ways of letting that dialogue go further. We hope to get the second series of Think in Translation going in the autumn, and that gives us a little time to think of new ways to make that happen.   

In the meantime, we’ll continue to explore translation and translated literature through our blog and social media platforms. Many thanks to all who’ve participated in Think in Translation, whether it be through listening to our podcast, reading our blog posts, or chatting with us on social media.


* It’s worth noting here that our Twitter followers have been wonderful resources for recommending translations. We were keeping a list, but there are now too many to detail here!

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

Our Think in Translation project has been made possible thanks to The Space and Creative Scotland. To learn more about the project, visit the Think in Translation home page.