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The Man Booker International Prize and translation

The Man Booker International Prize and translation

The 2013 Man Booker International Prize has not only thrust the 10 selected authors into the spotlight but an under-discussed element of literature too: translation. While the £60,000 prize is awarded to a writer with a body of work either written in English or widely available in English translations the winner may also choose a translator to receive a further £15,000.

This is no small matter. Fiction in translation has a hard time of it in the main English-language markets. In Britain and America it is known as “the three per cent problem” – because only three per cent of the titles published each year in these regions are translations from a foreign tongue. Of these fiction accounts for only one per cent (perhaps even as low as 0.7 per cent). It is not, as it is sometimes painted, that UK and US (and Canadian, South African, Australian and New Zealand) audiences are indifferent to foreign fiction but rather that they don't know about it because it is not available to them.

This is partly because of the hegemony of English – in Europe, for example, titles translated from English accounted for nearly double the total translated from the next 25 most popular languages put together. It is perhaps worth remembering that 96 per cent of the world's languages are spoken by just four per cent of the world's population. English may be behind Mandarin and Spanish in terms of native speakers but it is the global literary language. An illustration of this is the fact that the Chinese Nobel laureate Mo Yan's latest novel, Pow!, was first published not in his native language but in English (and it came out in India first too). To add to the imbalance English-speaking countries are particularly well-stocked with native work: for foreign books to succeed they have to be not just distinctively different but lucky too.

The genres that have so far proved most porous are crime and mystery. Among the great recent successes internationally have been Scandinavian crime fiction with Stieg Larsson, Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbø to the fore, and isolated books such as Patrick Süskind's Perfume, Bernhard Schlink's The Reader and, most notably, Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Shadow of the Wind which has sold 15 million copies internationally, more than any Spanish novel other than Don Quixote

The Man Booker International Prize, alongside others such as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and The European Prize for Literature, aim to widen this crack by putting the pick of international writers before the biggest readership. It will be a long time before the UK and the US match Spain, France and Germany, for example, where between eight to 14 per cent of book sales are translations. The globalisation of literature makes commercial as well as cultural sense: the American book market is worth in the region of $27 billion in sales a year while the world's largest market (in terms of numbers of books sold) is China.

Publishers are now coming alive to this and in the past few years some British publishers, notably the Maclehose Press and Harvill-Secker, have made foreign fiction their stock in trade with great success. It is a nice irony therefore that one of this year's MBI finalists, Lydia Davis, is not just a formidable writer but an accomplished translator of Proust too. She knows all too well that a translator can make or break a book.