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Small World by David Bellos

Small World by David Bellos

2016 Man Booker International Prize judge, David Bellos examines the geographic distribution of submissions for this year's prize, revealing the predominance of European entries

 

You can see the full accompanying infographic for this essay here.  INFOGRAPHIC CREDITS: Alex Butterworth, Tommaso Elli (DensityDesign Research Lab), Michele Invernizzi (DensityDesign Research Lab)

 

The Man Booker International Prize for Fiction, launched in its new form this year as an annual award for the best novel in English translation, called for UK publishers to submit novels originally written in a language other than English that appeared for the first time in the year 2015.1 One hundred and fifty-six translated books came in by the deadline, and taken together they can be treated as a meaningful sample of all literary translation into English in the period. What are the broad features of global fiction as it reaches English readers today?2

At first glance the Man Booker entries seem to come from all over the world, but the world of global fiction mapped out by these 156 books has a shape that is rather different from the real one. It’s reasonable to suppose that fiction is currently written in a lot more than a hundred languages, since extracts from works (predominantly, but not exclusively, works of fiction) translated from 105 languages have been posted on Wordswthoutborders.com. But the Man Booker International books come into English from only twenty-six languages, fourteen of which are official languages of the European Union—and those fourteen languages account for more than two-thirds of all the books submitted. Some of the books do come from the Far East, Africa and South America, but the overall shape of ‘global fiction’ delineated by the entries for this contest leans heavily towards the languages of western and northern Europe.

To visualise the geographical skew of the books submitted for the Man Booker International  Prize, you could place  the source language of each of them on a world map centered on Mainz, where printing was invented five centuries ago. One third of the novels in translation submitted for the prize were written in a language traditionally spoken less than 500km from Mainz, more than half of them in a language spoken within 1,000 km and more than two thirds of them within 1,500 km of the historical origin of the printed book.3

 

Afrikaans

2

Hungarian

1

Albanian

1

Icelandic

2

Arabic

4

Indonesian

1

Chinese

8

Italian

10

Croatian

2

Japanese

2

Czech

1

Korean

3

Danish

4

Norwegian

10

Dutch (incl. Flemish)

13

Portuguese

6

Finnish

3

Russian

4

French

29

Slovenian

2

German

9

Spanish

18

Greek

1

Swedish

14

Hebrew

2

Turkish

4

 

Figure 1 By source language

 

One reason for this otherwise strikingly conservative distribution of world fiction in relatively small circles around the city of Gutenberg is that several ‘central’ languages are used on other continents: French and Dutch (in the form of Afrikaans), from the closest circle, Spanish in the wider circle, and Portuguese, from among the official languages of the EU are languages of literary creation in Africa and the Americas as well.  In that sense the predominance of European languages in the set of books submitted for the Man Booker prize doesn’t necessarily mean that the books themselves are European to the same degree. However, if we measure the global distribution of literature translated into English in this sample by place of publication, the European skew remains very similar to the distribution by source language. Fifty of these novels were published in their original language within 500 km of Mainz, 68 within 1000 km, 106 within 1,500 km, 112 within 2,000 km and 127, or 83% of submissions for which the data is available, within 2,500 km of Mainz. Only trivial numbers come from any other part of the world. Four were published in Africa, four in the Americas, eight in the Middle East, and twelve in the Far East (including the vast and populous territories of South-East Asia, which contributed just a single novel). The 51 cities and 33 countries involved make the distribution by place of publication look a little less narrow than the distribution by language, but they make almost no dent in the proportion of books that come, materially, from northern and western Europe;

France

28

Lebanon

3

Spain

17

Japan

2

Sweden

14

 

Iceland

2

Netherlands

13

 

Croatia

2

Italy

10

Algeria

1

Norway

10

 

Switzerland

1

Germany

9

Czech Republic

1

China (PRC)

6

Egypt

1

Denmark

4

Greece

1

Russia

4

Hong Kong

1

Turkey

4

Hungary

1

South Korea

3

Indonesia

1

Portugal

3

Mexico

1

South Africa

2

Singapore

1

Slovenia

2

Albania

1

Brazil

3

 

 

 

Figure 2 Distribution by place

 

Language of composition and place of publication are not direct measures of where books are written or where their authors come from. As the submission forms for the Man Booker Prize include information about the citizenship and residence of the authors, they allow us to deduce an alternative map of this sample of world fiction by the countries of which the writers of these novels are citizens and in which they live at the moment.4  Yet this map is no less Eurocentric than the last. Out of the 143 authors involved in this contest,5 107 (75%) live in Europe, nearly all of these in the European Union and all but 3 of them in member-states of the European Economic Area.6 Only eleven authors are resident in the entirety of East and South-East Asia, where more than half the world’s population live. More of the submitted writers live in the USA (4) than in the whole of Africa (3), and only 8 live in the Middle East. Even Central and South America is the declared home of only 8 of the writers submitted. The current residence of novelists translated into English and with one or more books entered for the Man Booker contest makes mileage from Mainz an even stronger indicator of gaining access to world literature through translation than source language or place of publication.

To put it as a advice to aspiring authors: if you dream of joining the small band of world authors by writing fiction that gets translated into English, you increase your chances of success (a) by living in the Northern Hemisphere (132 out of 143, or 92% of our authors do) (b) in latitudes between those of Helsinki and Athens (124 out 143, or 86% of our authors do) and (c) by writing in one of the languages of northern and western Europe. The best investment of all would be a pied-à-terre in Stockholm, Berlin, Oslo or Paris. These four cities and their suburbs are home to 35% of all the authors whose books have been considered for the Man Booker International Prize this year!

The single most frequent source language for translation into English remains French, and the single most frequent residence for writers of books translated into English remains France. These two facts reproduce and maintain a thousand-year-old tradition of cultural interpenetration between the winners and losers of the Battle of Hasting. However, not all books translated from French were written by French writers living in France. One was written by an Austrian resident, one was written in Germany, and another in Spain, according to the authors’ declared place of residence, and one other was probably written in the USA. Conversely, not all the books written in France were written in French: at least one each was written in Albanian, Icelandic and Arabic by permanent residents of France. Narrowing the focus further to French citizens among the authors of the twenty-nine books translated from French, we find there are only nineteen of them, of whom seventeen live in France, and only fifteen have French citizenship and no other. So while there are 29 books out of 156 that we can call ‘French’, barely half that number are books in French written in France by citizens of France and no other country. French still dominates the field, but about half of what we would call ‘French books’ are in one or another respect not conventionally French at all.

This diversification of ‘Frenchness’ is part of a wider phenomenon. Many of the books in the sample were written in a country whose official or common language is not the one in which the book was written. Just as there are books written in Albanian, Arabic and Icelandic by authors residing in France, there are also a Spanish-language novel written in Norway, an Italian novel written in Belgium, a Swedish novel written in Italy, a German novel written Denmark, a novel in Afrikaans written in Australia, and at least four Spanish-language novels written in the USA.  Germany and Holland host writers of Chinese fiction, and writers of books in French submitted for the prize live not just in France but in Algeria, Germany, Austria and Spain. With more than twenty of the 156 books written in some kind of linguistic exile (and several others in masked exile—at least one of the writers in the sample spends part of his time in Manhattan), language displacement has become a more than marginal feature in the creation of world literature today.7

However, non-correspondence between citizenship, residence and language of composition provide only part of the picture of movement and migration in world fiction that can be extracted from the submissions for the Man Booker International Prize. The author biographies on dust jackets tell us, for example, that among writers of Swedish one is a childhood immigrant from Iran and another of Ugandan descent, and that one Finnish writer is half-Estonian. One Slovenian novelist lives for part of the year in Burkina Faso, and one writer of French living in France with a French passport was a Czech writer until his middle age. Other writers of French were born and educated in Morocco and Russia, an Arabic novelist is currently a professor at New York University, and a writer of German living in Germany came there from the former Yugoslavia in his teens.

These disparate fragments reveal an overall pattern of displacement which corresponds to the broad trend of migration in the world today. Writers move from Africa to Australia, Austria and Portugal and from South America to Spain, the USA and Portugal, making the southern hemisphere vastly less populated by writers of translated fiction.  Writers also move from the Middle East and China to the USA, France, Germany, and Holland.

The principal receiving cultures for writers from other backgrounds and languages are France, the USA, Sweden, Germany, and Norway, alongside Spain and Portugal for writers from Hispanophone and Lusophone countries in the southern hemisphere.  The magnet countries that absorb and host writers from elsewhere tend to be prosperous democracies with relatively high standards of individual freedom and low levels of crime and unemployment; areas that writers leave tend to be at the other end of the spectrum. That is not at all surprising. Writers are no different from the millions of other people who aspire to join the same direction of flow. In doing so, of course, they make their own contribution to the Eurocentric shape of world literature today.

Many of the books submitted for the Man Booker International Prize acknowledge the support of outside funding bodies.  Translation subsidy schemes aim to make a translated book no more onerous to publish than one that has not been translated, and thus to create a more level playing field for world literature in English. As subsidies are not equally available to writers in all languages, it is often thought that these mostly national schemes distort the picture of the world we can gain from reading translated fiction.

The Nordic countries, for example, give lavish support to their own literatures and to their translation into other languages. Unsurprisingly, all the Man Booker entries translated from Icelandic and Finnish, three-quarters of the books translated from Danish, and 60% of the books translated from Norwegian acknowledge the support of foundations in Iceland, Finland, Denmark and Norway respectively. Writers of Dutch are just as well supported: all thirteen books translated from that language were subsidised by the Dutch Foundation for Literature or (for citizens of Belgium) by the Flemish Literature Fund. Even allowing for the fact that only two books from German acknowledge support (one from the Goethe-Institut, the other from English Pen) and that most Swedish books (8 out of 13) received no support at all, it seems likely that the place of Nordic and Germanic literatures in English translation would have been smaller without these generous schemes for translation support.

Many other countries inside and outside the EU  have nationally-based support schemes for translation into English. Among the submissions for the Man Booker International Prize there were translations supported by the Mikhail Prokhorov Foundation and the Institute for Literary Translation in Russia, the TEDA Program of the Turkish Ministry of Culture, the Daesan Foundation of Korea, China Book International, the Trubar Foundation in Slovenia, the Swiss Pro Helvetia Foundation, the Italian Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Culture of Brazil.  However, the best-known and probably the oldest of all these schemes, the French Government’s translation assistance program now channelled through the Burgess Programme administered (for the UK) by the French Institute in London, cannot be held responsible for the large number of French books among the submissions: only five of them (out of 29) acknowledge support from this source.

The European Union is also involved in supporting translation between the languages of its member states, of which the UK is (still) one. Its logo appears on seven of the books in the sample, in most cases in association with one or another of the national translation subsidy schemes. In fact, only two of the books in the sample were supported by the Creative Europe Programme and no other fund. Consequently the EU’s role in skewing the selection of literature for translation into English seems quite small.

All the same, the vast majority of the translated books enjoying some kind of external support are translated from European languages. This tendency is barely inflected by the UK-based translation support schemes funded by the Arts Council of England, mostly through its partner in promoting translation, English PEN. The twenty-two novels acknowledging translation support from a UK body8 come from twelve different languages, but only five of these titles come from outside Europe (2 from China, 2 from Turkey and 1 from Korea), and so European languages once again take the lion’s share: five from French, five from Spanish, and one title each from Albanian, Dutch, German, Italian, Norwegian and Swedish. This reproduces the underlying asymmetry of funding availability, because many of the titles supported by UK-based programmes are also supported by source-language institutions, including NORLA (the Norwegian literature fund), the Swedish Arts Council, the Italian Foreign Ministry, the Portuguese government’s Book Office and the TEDA program of the Turkish Ministry of Culture. 

Here again, as with linguistic proximity, place of publication and place of residence, distance from Mainz (as well as citizenship of one of the more prosperous countries within that radius) is the strongest indicator of your chances of joining world literature through the door of translation into English. With all these different measures confirming each other, the unequal availability of translation subsidies seems only to confirm, not to create, the European bias of the entire business of translated fiction in English—over half of which appears to receive no subsidy at all.9

Reading literature in translation is often recommended as a way of learning about a foreign culture. Reading novels in English, however, is rarely promoted as a way of acquiring ‘English culture’, whatever that may be.  In fact, novels in English may be set in almost any country in the world—any reader can make a list of famous English-language works set in France (Dickens), Spain (Hemingway), Italy (Forster), the Balkans, Peru, Burma and so on. Foreign literatures are probably no different in this respect and there is no greater reason to expect a novel from Italy to be about Italy than for a novel from London to be about London. Is this borne out by the selection translated into English and submitted for the Man Booker Prize?

By far the largest number of novels in the sample have plots that are set in the country where they were written. A Swedish novel by a Finland Swede tells a story set among Finland Swedes, a major work by a Spanish writer deals with a family drama in Madrid, four Turkish novels tell us about the history and culture of Turkey, stories written in Venezuela tell us of life in Venezuela and books from Mozambique, Angola, Indonesia and Japan all draw on and portray aspects of life in those countries. To judge by these novels alone, what gets translated into English is much more ‘national” (regional, local) than any ‘national’ (regional, local) literature is likely to be—but it  would take a   larger and longer investigation than this one to find out if this surmise really holds.

 All the same, a significant fraction of these novels have plots that take the reader somewhere else, and the network of lines that are drawn across the world by the fictional substance of this cross-section of world literature is more global than the patterns that emerges from the formal data of source language, place of publication, and the citizenship and residence of authors.

Several of the substantial number of novels from the Nordic languages, for example, are not set in their home countries. One Finnish novel offers a history of Estonia in the mid-20C; one Norwegian novel gives a surprising account of the fate of Luxembourgers in World War II (including a long narrative of the Battle of Stalingrad), and another is set for the most part in New Jersey. One Danish novel is set in Belarus, and another gives us a history of the Christianization of Greenland; and from Iceland, there is a domestic drama set in Berlin. The Swedish novels submitted are the most diverse by plot location: they include a documentary account of a Nazi-run clinic in Austria, a mystery story set in Barcelona, an immigration story from Iran, an account of oppression in an unnamed part of Africa and a detective story located in Wilmslow. However, despite the presence of Iran and Africa in this catalogue, writers from the Nordic lands typically look at their own countries, closely related ones like Estonia, countries to which Nordic peoples have emigrated in the past (Greenland, USA) or countries within the magic circle of European languages and cultures (UK, Spain, Luxembourg).

In the sample as a whole, the most frequently occurring displacement at the level of plot is towards the English-speaking countries of the world. One French novel is largely set in Australia and another entirely in California; apart from the Norwegian novel set in New Jersey and the Swedish one set in Manchester, there are three Spanish-language novels dealing with life in New York State, New York City and in the Mexican-USA border zone.  There is even a (very good) Korean novel that begins in the DPRK and follows an emigrant through clandestine work in China to the hold of a freighter thanks to which she ends up at Elephant and Castle, in a nail salon.

Stories of migration abound in the novels translated into English: from Brazil, a story of a return to Turkey to discover the narrator’s lost roots; from Belgium, a novel that takes two characters of the same name to Argentina and South Africa; from Holland, an allegorical novel set among migrants trekking west from some remote and desolate part of the former USSR; from Kuwait, a story of the double life of a child of mixed Filipino and Arabic parentage; and from Israel, the story of a doctor obliged to work for a clandestine encampment of Eritrean refugees.

French literature— “literature in French” would obviously be a better term—is almost as marked as its Nordic rivals by the attractions of elsewhere. Of the 29 books in this group, one is set in Casablanca, one in Oran, one in Tangiers, one in St Petersburg, one in Libya, one in California, one in Mauritius, one on a yacht in the Indian Ocean, one in Australia, and one in the Congo, making a full third of all the titles translated from French about something other than France.10

Overall, the southern hemisphere is more present in the content of the submissions for the Man Booker Prize than the formal measures of origin suggest. Among these 156 novels one is set in Burkina Faso (Slovenian), one in Congo (French), two in Angola, one in Mozambique, two in Argentina, one in Chile, one in Venezuela, one in Peru, three in or partly in Brazil, one in Australia, one in Indonesia and three in (or partly in) South Africa. If we add to that works set in or dealing with Algeria, Morocco, Egypt, Kuwait, Israel, Turkey, Mexico, Japan, China, Taiwan and Korea, the ‘world’ of ‘world literature’ is not quite as badly out of line with the shape of the world itself as it first seemed. But the literary world in English translation has enormous gaps nonetheless. Not one of the novels submitted comes from or deals with the entire area east of Lebanon and west of Xinjiang or in the vast subcontinent between the Himalayas and Sri Lanka. There is nothing translated from Farsi or Hindi or Urdu or Bengali or Kannada or Tamul, nothing from Burmese, Thai or Malay, and only one book from all the languages of South-East Asia. A scalar map of the ‘Man Booker Planet’ would put Beijing and Tokyo next door to Beirut, and Korea next door to Australia. But despite the absence of Polish, Romanian and Bulgarian, its portrait of Europe would look quite like the real Europe, with sparsely-populated Scandinavia looking much larger than Italy (as it is) and Holland looming larger than Germany (which it shouldn’t).

What lessons can be learned from this sketchy analysis of a tiny sample of all the books being written in the world today?  The good news is that books worth translating can come from anywhere (Brazil, Congo, Indonesia, Korea…). The less good news is that outside of exceptional breakthroughs, the institutions of literature remain as firmly rooted in old Europe as they ever have been, so that most of the ‘world literature’ that gets into English comes from or via Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Stockholm, and Oslo. On the other hand, the major hubs of translated literature—Paris, the Low Countries and the Nordic nations—produce work that takes us not only to France, Holland and Scandinavia but to North and sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, America and all sorts of places we know little of (Estonia, Luxembourg, the Ardennes, Belarus…)  Reading literature in translation really is an education and a way of learning about the rest of the world. Or at least parts of it.

 


1 The Man Booker International Prize in its new form takes over from and absorbs the former Independent Foreign Fiction award. For that reason, the calendrical boundaries of the year 2015 were stretched to cover the 16 months since the last deadline for the now discontinued Independent award. Re-translations and posthumous works were excluded.

2 More than 156 translated novels were published in the UK in the stated period, but in all probability the submitted novels constitute a large fraction of the entire production of foreign literature in the UK. Translated fiction is of course also published in several other countries, and some of these books may also be available to UK readers. The universe of “literary translation into English” is hard to measure in its entirety.

Portugal is further than you think from the Main-Rhein valley, which is why Angolan, Mozambican, Brazilian and Portuguese entries are not part of this tally.

4 These facts to not tell us unambiguously where a book was actually written, of course: a novel written in Chuvash by a Russian citizen permanently resident in Omaha have been written in a rented villa in Nice, for example. Speculative fantasies aside, some authors divide their time between two or more residences. Except where stated otherwise, I have simply taken the first residence named in the submission form as an indication of “where the book comes from”.

5 Several authors had more than one of their books submitted, so the number of authors involved is smaller than the number of books considered.

6 The EU plus Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, for the purposes of this survey.

7 For the sake of completeness I have included in this tally some cases unrelated to linguistic exile: several writers of Norwegian live over the border in Sweden, with a language that is mutually comprehensible to a high degree; and one writer of Swedish lives in Finland among the minority community of Finland Swedes, to which he belongs.

8 Credits are to different schemes or bodies with rather similar names: ‘English Pen’, ‘Pen Translates!’, ‘English Pen Translation Programme’, ‘English Pen Writers in Translation supported by Bloomberg’, ‘Pen Translation Programme supported by Bloomberg’. Three titles acknowledge the Arts Council exclusively.

Some of the books submitted for the prize are UK editions of translations previously published in the USA, bought in as already translated works by UK publishers. It is possible that some of these received financial support for their first publication for which acknowledgment is not required in subsequent editions. As a result the number of unsupported translations may be smaller than it appears.

10 The real proportion is higher. The year 2015 saw the rapid launch or re-launch of translations of at least six works by a recent winner of the Nobel prize whose plots never stray very far from the Eiffel Tower. This solid block of entries for the Man Booker Prize skews the picture of French writing towards France. 

To see the full infographic that accompanies this essay click on the link at the start of the essay