I am told by my agent that one of the many, if lesser known, effects that the recession is having on publishing is that fewer books are being translated. Publishing houses all over the world are concentrating on their own, native literature and only translating foreign books that are world-wide best-sellers – in other words safe bets. Great for native writers who have maybe been trying to break through into publishing for years but not so good for established authors who earn valuable extra cash from translation rights.
Some translation rights payments are miniscule but they all add up and, especially when an author is struggling (most of the time!) they can be lifesavers. Translation also gets one’s work out to a wider audience and means that one can build a following all over the world and not just where English, in my case, happens to be spoken.
However there is a rather more serious point to be made here other than how much money I have left to pay my gas bill and that is one that is to do with exchanges of ideas. Literature is one of the main ways, I believe, in which cultures exhibit and share their ideas with each other. Books open doors that no film or TV programme can to the ways in which other people think in depth about their lives. One can mull a book, come back to it again and again and really think it through. As a novelist who frequently writes about the Muslim world I feel this very acutely. Elements in the Muslim world as well as much of the West are going through a period when understanding of ‘the other’ is in short supply and so is needed, desperately. If anything we need more Islamic literature while they need a far wider ranging spread of work from the Western world. How can you understand people if all you ever come across about them is negative? Happily a lot of modern Turkish fiction is being translated into English now but not nearly enough and fiction from the actual Middle East is still very much a minority interest.
I can understand why publishers need to make financial cuts, particularly if it is to save people’s jobs. But they do also, I think, have some responsibility for the propagation of cultural exchange between different nations and that should be honoured if and when it can be.
I have absolutely nothing against best sellers and I am glad that they exist if for no other reason than that they do get translated. But a culture is so much more than one or two very popular books and we should all seek out new and sometimes rare translations of foreign fiction and non-fiction whenever we can. It isn’t all about my gas bill and I know it.