Literary myths of unpopular translation

Translated literature has a new hero in the form of Le French Book. Based in New York with the motto “if we love it, we’ll translate it”, they publish French translations, allowing readers from all over the world to enjoy the wide range of fiction currently being produced in France.

Rallying to the defence of translated fiction, they’ve recently put together a list dispelling the most common myths. We’ve summarised them here for your enjoyment. See if any of this sounds familiar!

Have you ever heard a friend or relative refer to translated texts as too literary or serious, or perhaps only something for scholars or academics to study?  Well surprisingly, according to UNESCO the most popular translated author is English crime writer Agatha Christie. Despite the quality of her work, the celebrated whodunit novelist is a stretch from what we may consider scholarly or classical literature. Other writers from the top five Georges Simenon penning French crime fiction and fairytale writer Hans Christian Andersen, whose tales have been translated into over 125 languages!

Another preconception which many of us may have held over translated works of fiction is that they are unpopular. Stieg Larsson’s ‘Millennium series’, a set of three novels translated from the original Swedish, suggests otherwise. The series has reached over 64 million in sales, with the triology also adapted into Hollywood blockbusters. Not bad for a genre which nobody reads!

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With there being an evident market for translated literature, it isn’t surprising that they are actually very popular with publishers. Statistics have previously suggested that only 3% of books published in the United States are translated works, however research at the University of Rochester in 2012 actually showed an annual increase of 26.3% in the number of translated works published. Some have attributed this to an increase in specialist translation publishers, like Le French Book themselves. However, even larger publishers like HarperCollins or Amazon have both taken to publishing international or translated works of fiction.

One criticism of translated literature often comes from those who believe a book can be simply copy and pasted into a computer’s translating software. With the massive grammatical, structural and cultural differences between languages it’s impossible for a computer to produce accurate and entertaining translated text. At least, not entertaining in the way the author intended! This is why human translations are so much better than online translations, which often fail to retain the original meaning or even make sense.

Take the example of French novelist David Khara’s ‘The Bleiberg Project’. One of the novel’s poignant moments is written in the original as “Je suis une ordure et j’ai la gueule de bois, comme tous les matins. Le cigare est en panne, normal. Ça cogne à mort là-haut.”

Using an automated machine translation, such as Google translate, the French translation becomes “I’m a scumbag and I have a hangover, like every morning. The cigar is down, normal. It knocks to death there.”

Struggling to make sense of it? In contrast, a human translator might come up with “This morning, like every other morning, I’m hung over. My brain is fried. I’m a piece of shit. My head is pounding.” Look at the difference, and it soon becomes clear just how much value a translation by a qualified human adds.

If you’re curious about some of the French translations offered by Le French Book, or are interested in browsing translated works of fiction in general, then why not log onto the Le French Book website or browse their oeuvre on any major online marketplace such as Amazon.