As Tomb of Sand is proclaimed the winner of the 2022 International Booker Prize, readers and translators tell Sarah Shaffi how translated literature can help us learn more about ourselves and better understand each other.
To translate, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is ‘to turn into one’s own or another language’.
That dictionary definition is not inaccurate, but when it comes to literary translation, it also doesn’t encompass the depth and breadth of what translators do. Cambridge Dictionary perhaps comes closer with one of its definitions, describing the action of translating as ‘to change something into a new form’, although that’s still not quite right.
Translator and Chair of the 2022 International Booker Prize Frank Wynne says that yes, you do ‘take a text in one language and you recreate that text in another language, but that sounds disarmingly simple’.
‘In fact you need to pay attention, not just to the meaning of words, but to how they fit together,’ he continues. ‘What the cadence or the rhythm of the sentence is, what the humour or irony in a sentence is, what cultural connotations it might have.’
Perhaps the mystery of translation is best summed up by Jamie Chang, who translated Cho Nam-ju’s Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 and is also translating the author’s forthcoming book Saha. She describes the process as ‘like taking a watercolour on paper landscape painting and copying it in oil on canvas – same landscape, different everything else’.
Wynne adds: ‘Mostly it requires you to listen very intently to the voice that you can hear in the text and recreate that voice in your own language.’
For much of the 2000s, it’s been said that only around three per cent of the books published in the UK each year were translated from other languages, meaning we weren’t hearing many of those voices in our own language. But in recent years, there has been an uptick (it’s now said to be around 6%), and research by Nielsen and the Booker Prize Foundation shows that sales of translated fiction have been growing.
The growth in sales is encouraging, and can provide an incentive for publishers to seek out work not written in English; the International Booker Prize is another incentive, as it splits its prize money between author and translator. ‘The International Booker Prize is also, I believe, one of the reasons that so many small independent publishers have set up business in Britain in the past decade,’ says Fiammetta Rocco, administrator of the International Booker Prize. ‘Independent publishers are often more adventurous in the commissioning than the corporates.’
Among those adventurous small publishers is Charco Press, which in 2022 had Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle, on the International Booker Prize shortlist. Samuel McDowell, publisher at Charco Press, says that like all books, translated literature ‘offers the reader the opportunity for escapism, for adventure, to have a laugh, and to be provoked’.
‘What translation offers on top of this is the ability to experience it all from someone who perhaps has had very different life experiences to the reader, who grew up and lives in a different country with a different culture,’ he adds. ‘It provides a window onto experiences with a new perspective, whilst also allowing the reader to appreciate that many aspects of human life are universal. It helps us better understand and appreciate each other.’
Rocco agrees, and also points to the ways in which ‘writers from other lands, who write in other languages, have a far broader sense of storytelling, narrative, poetry and drama than we are used to in English’.
She continues: ‘Those story-telling traditions, song traditions, old bards, rhymes, folk tales and ballads have given rise to forms of literature that are not so common to English readers.’
‘So what we as native English readers get, most of all, from reading in translation is illumination, richness and a strong sense of surprise. Of the discovery of something quite new.’
Like any discovery, there can be both an excitement around translated fiction, as well as a slight nervousness. Include the words ‘and it’s a novel in translation’ in any pitch for a book to your average reader, and there might be a slight hesitation. Will this book be inaccessible? Will its form be obscure and unrecognisable? Will it be worthy rather than entertaining?
But, points out Rocco, translated fiction has been of our canon for such a long time that we often ascribe an Englishness to writers who in fact wrote in other languages.
‘The single most common misconception about reading ‘foreign’ fiction, as it used to be called, or fiction in translation is that it’s somehow different or even unknown and because it’s unknown it’s difficult,’ says Rocco. ‘But if you think of Tolstoy, or Proust or Chekhov or Thomas Mann, very few of us would know their work if it weren’t for having read it in translation. Yet they are such staples of the literature we read growing up that we don’t think of them primarily as translated fiction; we take their translation for granted and almost think of them as English.’
Writer, critic and broadcaster Viv Groskop, who was a judge for the 2022 International Booker Prize, also says people might have been put off by the fact that ‘world literature was once a rather academic pursuit and people were sniffy about anything that wasn’t “reading in the original”.
‘I always hated that attitude - especially because my university subjects were French and Russian and, of course, I have read most of those languages’ classic texts in the original. But that’s a very privileged and unusual experience.
‘There is no way I want those texts to be inaccessible. I hate the idea that any kind of reading is hierarchical or that someone has a better window into a book than you do because they speak the language or they’ve got “the right translation”.’
Some of those barriers people felt stood in the way of reading in translation have likely been broken down by the success of a few key stories, such as Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels and Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series.
And of course, much more recently, English-speaking people have been consuming television in other languages in their droves, from Money Heist (Spanish) to Squid Game (Korean).
As the popularity of translated literature (and indeed other forms of art) grows, it’s all too easy to underestimate the work that goes into making an excellent translation. As Wynne says, it’s about much more than just the words, it’s about the feel of a book and ensuring that is conveyed to readers of the book in English.
McDowell says that a great translation must start with ‘a great original work’. Once that hurdle has been cleared, the book must then ‘find its way into the hands of a translator who finds a deep affinity with the work, who can immerse themselves in it and appreciate all of its intricacies,’ he adds.
‘With that depth of connection, translation moves from simply translating the words, to translating the poetry, the music, the rhythm that the author has painstakingly injected into their work,’ McDowell continues. When that level of immersion can be achieved, that is when magic happens.’
Wynne agrees, pointing out that the same book in the hands of three different translators would result in three different versions of it in English.
‘Not only that, but if you ask me today, you’ll get a different book than you would’ve got two years ago, or than you will get two years from now,’ says Wynne. ‘Translation is a performance that takes place in a particular place at a particular time and is then set down. It’s influenced by everything that we read and everything we listen to and all of the plays we watch in all of the movies we see and so on and so forth. All of these things can feed into the language that we have available to us that we may use.’
Every translator approaches a work differently. Wynne says he likes to read the book for pleasure first ‘because I want to experience what it’s like just to read the book’.
‘I tend to do quite a detailed first draft,’ he continues. ‘I tend to tackle the more difficult problems if I can in the first draft. And I leave myself little notes and little footnotes and whatever of things that I want to come back to and want to do again. And I will do most of my research when I’m doing my first draft.’
Chang approaches it slightly differently, getting to know the book in detail before embarking on the translation. ‘I get to know the setting and plot first, then the characters’ journey, then the themes and possible messages of the story,’ she explains. ‘I don’t start translating until I’m sure I know the story well enough.’
Despite these routines though, there is no formula for a good translation.
‘The job does not get easier,’ says Chang. ‘Each project presents fresh, new challenges, and I never know if I’m getting it right. It’s a scary feeling, but it’s fun when I don’t think too hard about it and lose myself in the story.
‘The common misunderstanding [about translation] is that anything that is not a literal translation is a lie. I think this comes from the impossibility of pinning down what is ‘faithful’ in terms of translation. After 15 years of literary translation, I still don’t know what it means. I simply go with what feels right for the story.
What feels right for the story is a difficult thing to identify, but just as a translator knows it when it comes to their work, a reader will also be able to judge whether a translation is good.
‘I think really you judge translations in the way that you judge all other books,’ says Wynne. ‘You pick up the book and if it speaks to you, and if you race through it and at the end of it, desperately want to give it to somebody else to read, then you’ve got not just a good book, but a good translator.’
As we consume more fiction in translation, it’s like we’ll discover more books from further afield or in languages we didn’t expect; Geetanjali Shree’s Tomb of Sand, translated by Daisy Rockwell, is the first book written in Hindi to make any of the International Booker Prize lists, and it won the 2022 prize on May 26. Speaking at the press conference announcing Shree and Rockwell as the winners, Wynne said very few books are translated from Indian languages ‘despite the fact that Britain has a very long relationship with the Indian subcontinent’.
‘I think that’s a pity and I think, in part, it happens because a subsection of Indian writers write in English, and perhaps we feel that we already have the Indian writers we need but unfortunately there are many, many Indian writers of whom we’re unaware simply because they have not been translated,’ he added.
There are almost certainly stories we’re missing out on by only reading English-language fiction from and about certain areas and communities. The more translated fiction we read, the more our view of the world will expand.
‘There’s something magical about translated fiction,’ says Groskop. ‘It’s one of the most direct and intimate human experiences we can share with someone who has a different native language to us. I’m in awe of the translators who facilitate that connection.
‘You learn so much about yourself, your biases and your assumptions by reading widely in translation. You get to eavesdrop on conversations you would never understand or never even know about. You get a window into the mind and imagination of other cultures. You get to see what other people near and far are thinking about — which can make you feel hyper-connected to humanity or deliciously able to escape your own insular culture’.