Vagabond Voices: Why Do We Need Translated Literature?

‘Literatures are at their best when they have an ear for what other literatures are doing.’

In the latest feature in our Translation as Conversation strand, in association with A Year of Conversation, we asked Allan Cameron of Vagabond Voices to write about his thoughts on literature in translation. Vagabond Voices are an independent publisher at the vanguard in bringing literature from around the world to readers in the UK.


When the title of a blog post looks like a question, it’s really an announcement that you’re about to be enlightened in the manner of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done? There will be a bit of that, as we believe in translated novels, having published a good number of them and many more are on their way. Be assured that translation doesn’t allow for certainty, and I am still uncertain about it even after having worked in the sector for decades.

Why should you read a translated novel, when there are so many good ones written in English? Surely a translation is never as good as the original? Good questions, and I understand their weight. Translation, particularly literary translation, is impossible, and this is truer of poetry than it is of prose. The fundamental problem is that languages don’t just do things differently; they see things differently. Language is a process of categorisation, not only of vocabulary but also of grammar – not only of nouns and adjectives, but also of verbs and their tenses, and these can be done in any manner of ways. Kivunjo, which is spoken in Kenya and Tanzania, has tenses that refer the action of a verb to today, earlier today, yesterday, no earlier than yesterday, yesterday or earlier, the remote past, the habitual, the ongoing, the consecutive, the hypothetical, the future, an indeterminate time and the occasional. Most East Asian languages have no commonly used tenses.

In a sociolinguistic experiment, a group of English speakers and a group of Indonesian speakers were asked to pair off two out of three pictures, the first of which showed a man (A) kicking a ball, the second the same man (A) about to kick a ball, and the third a different man (B) kicking a ball. Most of the English speakers paired off the two different men (A and B) both kicking the ball, and most of the Indonesians paired off the same man (A) kicking the ball and about to kick the ball. These extraordinary results would appear to reflect the different tense usage in the two languages. English has a clearly defined tense usage, and generally Indonesian doesn’t. Language affects the way we perceive time and action, but it does much more – often in more subtle ways that would defy such experimentation.

Languages come with different literary histories and cultural references, and if a language is spoken in more than one country, these can change within a language. Languages provide different tools and are more or less adept at particular tones. Rhyme can be easy in some languages and difficult in others. Where it has a very limited number, as in English, it can often sound stilted and forced, whereas in other languages the poet can use it at will and make a purely aesthetic judgement. The mechanisms of humour are perhaps the most varied element between languages, and comedy, rather than tragedy, is difficult to write and often impossible to translate.

I’m not arguing my case very well, you may think, but one reason why translation is so important is precisely the huge obstacles that lie in its way. The history of literature is the history of translation: Roman letters became what we know them to have been, because of the Greeks; European vernacular literature was influenced by Latin and for many centuries lived alongside it; the influence of Italian on European literature led to such figures as Shakespeare and Cervantes; French dominated in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while English is now a global power. Influence does not always follow power: the Greeks were defeated by Rome, but managed to persuade their conquerors that Greek culture was superior, and Brythonic tales from Wales, Cornwall and Brittany were translated into French and from France around Europe.

Literatures are at their best when they have an ear for what other literatures are doing. English literature in the nineteenth century was harmed by its insularity, almost certainly due its supreme power at the time. There were exceptions: George Eliot, who translated from German, was the only writer to adopt new techniques such as free indirect discourse (often referred to by the German term, erlebte Rede, not introduced into English until the 1920s), and Robert Louis Stevenson started his career with Travels with a Donkey, a travelogue in Provence, and finished it with his extraordinary and innovative South Sea Tales – neither of these are strictly translations, but they definitely are in the etymological sense of “transferring across”, from one culture to another.

Readers may feel underwhelmed; haven’t they read their Tolstoys and Flauberts? Aren’t most translations of a poor quality? It is not the case that the classics are always well translated, and yet they’re so powerful that, though diminished, they manage to hold their position. Equally many minor works are well translated and perhaps even improved upon. When it comes to choosing translated novels, careful browsing does pay dividends, and if there are more than one translation of the same work in the bookshop, you can discover much about what translation involves. Translators are not paid a fortune and may be working against the clock, as do writers and journalists, but readers looking for variety may find substandard work little more than an irritant, as the taste of another unfamiliar world compensates for it. However, if we can define what a good translation is, we’ll also understand what a translation is.

Translations introduce readers to the many ways we can set about literature. Seemingly new techniques and plot devices can be striking, though they may be common in the original language. Cultural autarky is sterile, and the Anglosphere is in danger of falling into that trap. A translation can be informative about how other peoples live, and it teaches us about the other. It has a humanistic influence, which has outcomes in those many countries where translation is common (Italy publishes around 25% of its books in translation, France around 20% and Germany somewhere in the teens, whilst it is around 3% in the English-speaking world). Could we build Europe without translation? Probably not. Translation’s main purpose, however, is to increase the provision of good literature, so a good translation has to read as though it had been written in English (not contaminated by the source language’s syntax), and yet it must retain as much as possible of the original’s cultural difference, which is the main thing translation brings to the reading experience. This is not easy. This is yet another impossibility in translation, but it’s something translators should strive for.

Who benefits from translation? Most governments see it as the means to export their own cultures, and consequently subsidise foreign publication of their literature. This is good for their writers, who earn more money and enjoy the odd trip abroad – a significant benefit and a cultural exchange – but the culture of the target language is, I think, the greatest beneficiary, because the translated literature it consumes will broaden its understanding of literature and of the world.

When giving talks on translation, I often ask, “Is translation an exercise in uncertainty or an obstacle to communication?” It is both of course, and the miscommunications also have their usefulness, because the target culture adds meanings not originally intended in the source culture. The whole process is about judgement where there’s a degree of uncertainly, and translation is not unique in this, but this is uniquely essential to what translation is about. For practitioners, translation is an excellent apprenticeship in writing, because it teaches them as much about their own language as it does about the language they’re translating from. It teaches them about the strengths and limitations of both languages. Every human language is deficient. During Q&As, someone asked me if this could be said of English too. The question told its own story, and of course English is deficient, and translators into English from different languages will notice different deficiencies. English is no different from any other language in its uniqueness, its commonality, its strengths and its weaknesses.

“Literary novel” is not a term that I like. It used to be called the novel, but that term is now the domain of genre, the formatted novel. The distinction is not clear-cut, many good writers having switched to genre in order to survive as writers. The literary novel is consequently defined by what it is not, but I would like to emphasise what it is: a novel whose secrets cannot be guessed at until it has been read, because it’s innovative, often elegant in prose style, and concerned with issues of importance which only it can analyse in an open manner leaving readers to make what they want of it. As with all definitions in the arts, this definition is not exhaustive nor can it be. In Britain, the literary novel does not sell well and perhaps never has compared with other European countries. It is difficult for publishers to continue to publish them and remain solvent, and that is a problem for young writers. A distressing one, if we care about our literary culture in Scotland and in the wider English-speaking community.

If it is headache to cover costs when publishing literary novels originally written in English, it is an eternal migraine to do so when they’ve been translated into our language. We often receive praise – from both readers and publishing colleagues – for taking on the difficult but worthwhile task of translation. What may not be obvious to those who praise us, however, is that we are in a precarious place with our translated literary fiction, and if we don’t start covering our costs soon (let alone making a profit), we’ll have to drop our translations altogether and focus instead on what sustains us: our literary novels, poetry and political polemics written in original English.

If it were simply a matter of finding better books to translate, that’d be one thing, but even high-quality translated fiction can be difficult to sell. As an example, our accountant recently enquired about a “hole” in our accounts related to a particular translated novel that had lost us money. That novel was Lars Sund’s remarkable masterpiece, A Happy Little Island. A Happy Little Island is a staff favourite. It’s beautifully translated by Peter Graves, and perhaps even more important, it’s relevant, as it explores a small island’s response when dead bodies begin washing ashore, with no identification and no one to claim them. Of course we are aware that many fantastic books don’t receive the recognition they deserve. But the issue we wish to bring to light here is that we – and surely other small publishers of translated literary fiction – cannot keep producing translations if no one is buying them.

Our hope is that if people know that small publishers are struggling to sell translations, perhaps they’ll be more inclined to purchase a few. In the age of crowdfunding and other appeals, it is more acceptable to be a little self-serving, but obviously it is not just our own translated novels that have to be read! There are a small number of usually very small publishers trying to turn the tide, and they are all worthy of your custom and support, but we could suggest that Vagabond Voices would not be a bad place to start.

Wait, I’m going to be even more self-serving: if you want to know more about the importance of diversity of languages and dialects, the diversity of language within a language (registers and argots) and even lingua francas (they too have a role, though the predominance of English over the other lingua francas is a danger to our linguistic ecology), you could read my own work on this related subject, In Praise of the Garrulous.


Vagabond Voices have a dedicated website on issues of translation with plenty more insightful and interesting blogs and podcasts. Find out more at Think in Translation:

You can purchase Vagabond Voices books in translation on their website

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