Jonathan Ruppin writes for PEN Atlas about the shortlist for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, what it can tell us about the context of translated fiction in the present and which names to keep an eye out for in the future

The Independent Foreign Fiction Prize offers a rare instance of media coverage for translated fiction, with most bookshops finding front-of-house space for what many might assume to be a fairly specialised minority interest. But I suspect this year’s shortlist will entice plenty of readers to try something new: it always does.

There are three names that few will have encountered before. Andrés Neuman‘s Traveller of the Century offers the profundity of Will Self’s Umbrella or Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Chris Barnard‘s Bundu will appeal to fans of J M Coetzee or Damon Galgut. Trieste by Daša Drndic pieces together a tragic history from tattered fragments in unforgettable fashion.

The other three writers are more familiar. Ismail Kadare has developed a devoted following since winning the inaugural Man Booker International Prize eight years ago and in 2010 Gerbrand Bakker‘s The Twin proved to be a popular winner of the IMPAC Award. Not only Spanish-language readers are well acquainted with Enrique Vila-Matas: you can feel confident you’re in a good bookshop if you find Bartleby & Co on the shelves.

But Independent Foreign Fiction Prize does not operate in isolation. I’m certainly expecting, for instance, the English edition of Michel Rostain‘s The Son, winner of France’s Prix Goncourt in 2011, to attract a significant readership when it’s released by Tinder Press next month. 

It is received wisdom that British readers have no appetite for fiction in translation. In any discussion, someone will cite the 3% of books sold that originate in other languages and everyone else will slowly shake their heads in sorrowful recognition, even though no one knows where the statistic came from. It was at least given credence last year when research by Literature Across Frontiers, a research organisation supported by the Cultural Programme of the European Union, revealed that the figures in Britain are 2.5% for the whole of the market and 4.5% for fiction, poetry, and drama. But while the figures in most other markets are supposedly much higher, such comparisons ignore some very significant points of context. 

Beyond the Anglopshere, English is a national language in over a quarter of the world’s nations. It’s also the only language in common in vast swathes of Africa and Asia: the English-language heritage alone of India is considerable. English is the planet’s lingua franca.

It should also be borne in mind that translated fiction tends towards the literary. The more commercial end of the market – such as thrillers, romance and historical fiction – already sees many more titles produced than the market can possibly sustain, so publishers are unsurprisingly wary of adding translated books to the range. Not only is there the additional cost of translation, but such genres are read principally for entertainment and escapism, and are anchored by familiar cultural references.

This fear of scaring off readers is apparent in the way that those writers who do make it to the English-language market are presented. There’s no mention on the covers of the British or American editions of Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy that the books were originally written in Swedish and Denmark’s Jo Nesbø has even lost his suspiciously Scandinavian minuscule on this side of the Atlantic.

The success of these two authors, however, hints at a potential readership for translated fiction that remains largely untapped. Crime fiction from many European nations can now be found on the shelves of all but the most meagrely stocked bookshop. The success of writers such as Sergei Lukyanenko and Sergei Lukyanenko confirms that fantasy and SF readers are as willing to entertain new sources for their reading as well as exploring new worlds.

The accusations of homogeneity and parochialism often levelled at British publishers can be quickly refuted by leafing through a handful of their catalogues. But there is a discrepancy between what they offer bookshops and what actually ends up on the shelves of too many of our book retailers. 

Breaking new authors of any kind is now viewed as one of the principal obstacles to sustaining the diversity of the book trade. It’s all about bulk sales for supermarkets, who now account for over a fifth of sales by volume, and the algorithms used by online retailers bring up the same familiar titles repeatedly. Even our remaining high-street book chains focus somewhat less than they once did on expanding the horizons of their customers.

But this conservatism leaves the independent sector with a terrific opportunity assert its credentials. Few publishers offer them anywhere near the attractive discounts that the big players can demand, so they are not hemmed in by commitments to place books backed by the biggest marketing campaigns front and centre. Their need to distinguish themselves, their superior ability to handsell and, often, their place at the heart of the local community allows them to guide readers towards unexpected pleasures.

It also allows them to work with the many smaller, independent presses who, unfettered by shareholder expectations, are less compromised by the irresolvable dichotomy of business and art. The flourishing of publishers such as Peirene Press, And Other Stories, Hesperus Press and Alma Books demonstrates the natural curiosity of the reader, a phenomenon not so fanciful when one considers the role of the imagination in the process of reading.

At Foyles, we realised some time ago that there is an unsatisfied demand for translated fiction and you’ll rarely see one of our shops without some sort of display. We’ve found that a table full of the obscure writers from countries whose literary heritage is a closed book to most will attract great interest, just so long as there are a handful of recognisable titles amongst the range for reassurance. 

This isn’t revolutionary or daring. It’s a reflection of the multicultural world in which we now live, a world in which events anywhere may have their consequences for us. And what better way to explore that world than through the stories that sit at the heart of these many cultures? Storytelling is a fundamental human instinct – we’ve done it since we first sat around the fire picking bits of mammoth from between our teeth – and tales of the wondrous and strange resonate as much as those set on familiar ground.

About the Author

Jonathan Ruppin has worked at Foyles Bookshop for ten years, where he is now Web Editor. He is also a member of the Editorial Comittee for New Books in German and a freelance journalist. He tweets as @tintiddle.

Additional Information

English PEN, together with the Reading Agency and the British Centre for Literary Translation, are partnering with Booktrust to give 300 Readers the chance to shadow this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The IFFP Readers’ Prize project is funded by the Free Word Strategic Commissioning Fund and the NALD Futures Fund.