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Weekly Roundup: The invasion of foreign fiction

Weekly Roundup: The invasion of foreign fiction

The invasion of foreign fiction

With only days to go before the announcement of the Man Booker International Prize, it seems the prize is doing its job. Part of the reason behind turning the Man Booker International Prize into an annual award was to raise awareness of foreign fiction in translation – for decades, very much the poor relation of the Anglophone literary world. Fuller statistics are available here but, in short, in the UK, translated literary fiction is, staggeringly, selling better than literary fiction originally written in English: although translated fiction accounts for just 3.5% of literary fiction titles published, it accounted for 7% of sales in 2015. Fiammetta Rocco, the director of the Man Booker International Prize, believes there are various reasons behind this shift: ‘People travel more and more people travel, there is highbrow foreign television coming here, so the whole landscape of foreignness is much more even – people cross boundaries much more easily. There are some stand-out authors like Knausgaard, Murakami and Ferrante. And there are also small publishers today, who were set up to deal almost entirely with translated fiction, which wasn’t the case 15 years ago.’ If that's the big picture she also points out just how startling the numbers are: ‘In 2001, every literary fiction title written in English sold an average 1,153 copies, while every translated literary fiction title sold only 482 copies. By 2015 every literary fiction title written in English sold an average of only 263 copies, while every translated literary fiction title sold an average of 531 copies.’ Whoever wins the MBI on Monday evening will increase that gap even further.

There is a chance to hear what the Man Booker International Prize fuss is about on Sunday afternoon (15th) with a series of readings and discussions at the British Library in London from the shortlisted authors, their translators or editors. If you want a perfect overview of the range and flavour of the shortlistees this is the ideal opportunity. There will also be a chance to buy signed copies and since these authors are rarely in London the old joke that it is harder to find an unsigned work of fiction than a signed one doesn't apply.

Snippets of wisdom from the shortlisted books can also be found on Weekend, a BBC World Service programme. Rather brilliantly, a couple of sentences from each of the books, taken out of context, become aphorisms that can apply to innumerable lives. Orhan Pamuk's A Strangeness in My Mind, for example, takes its title from the following pensée: ‘What makes a city a city is that it lets you hide the strangeness in your mind inside its teeming multitudes.’ In A General Theory of Oblivion José Eduardo Agualusa cautions: ‘Don't torture yourself any more. Our mistakes correct us . . . practise forgetting.’ While Elena Ferrante in The Story of a Lost Child points out: ‘Ill feelings are inevitable but the essential thing is to keep them in check.’ Who better to take life lessons from than some of the most deep thinking writers in the world who have, unlike so many academic philosophers, the ability to communicate their thoughts rather than make them impenetrable?

Emma Donoghue, the Man Booker Prize shortlisted author of Room – recently made into a hugely successful film – has become the very definition of an international author. She recently explained, albeit a little confusingly: ‘I’m 'Irish Canadian', which means I’m totally Irish. I lived in Ireland until I was 20, then England for eight years, then Canada. It’s just a handy way of saying I have a foot in two camps. Ideally I’d want British newspapers, the weather of the south of France [she is currently living in Nice], American television and the polite manners of Canada. No one country can satisfy me now.’ Donoghue also confesses that ‘I've never been drunk.’ Perhaps she should try it to put some flesh of her perfect but illusory realm.