Two of the biggest literary events of the past few months are perhaps the most unlikely.
The first is heretofore unknown Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgård’s initial three titles in an unsparing, six-book examination of his own life, the overarching title of which, My Struggle (Vintage), is a provocative nod to the infamous autobiography of Adolf Hitler—who happens to be the main character of the second event: Timur Vermes’ Stygian comedy, Look Who’s Back (MacLehose).
What Vermes and Knausgård’s books have in common—apart from referencing Der Führer to varying degrees—is that they are translated, a sector on the rise. For the first 19 weeks of 2014, books in translation shifted just over £3.6m through Nielsen BookScan’s Top 5,000, a 6.2% value rise on the same period in 2013, against a Top 5,000 that has declined 3.8% year on year in 2014.
This is impressive given that Jo Nesbo’s Phantom (Vintage) and Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared (Hesperus) both had shifted around 100,000 units through BookScan at this point last year. While no translated title has come close to hitting those heights in 2014 (see chart right), sales are far broader and deeper. There were 63 translated books in the Top 5,000 at this point in 2013; this year there are 112.
Crime is still the dominant genre; Nesbo alone has 17 titles in the 2014 Top 5,000, garnering 15% of all translated revenue. But the translated sector is broadening. Six of the top 10 translated books in 2014 are non-crime, including Jonasson’s chart-toppers, plus Maps (Big Picture), by Polish husband-and-wife children’s author/illustrator pair Aleksandra and Daniel Mizielinksa, and Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s memoir.
Outside of the top 10, Look Who’s Back has sold a respectable 6,600 copies, Knausgård’s series has notched up £85,000, and there has been a surprise hit for French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century (Belknap), which has taken over £200,000.
Translated titles are still a small part of the market: just 2.1% of the Top 5,000 in 2014. Yet, publishers and agents do think the share will continue to rise, due to the cumulative effect of those crime bestsellers, but also because of a change in British publishing practices and a savvier rights culture abroad.
In September, Pushkin Press will publish Robert Merle’s The Brethren, the first in the Frenchman’s 13-volume adventure series that has sold around five million units worldwide. Publisher and m.d. Adam Freudenheim said the way Pushkin was releasing The Brethren reflects a trend of publishers “making sure we do not publish the books as worthy ‘fiction in translation’, but simply as great books. I think that’s been changing across the board; now readers are just encountering great titles with great packages.”
It is a point echoed by Jessica Bager, agent at Stockholm’s Salomonssen Agency, whose clients include Nesbo, Anders de la Motte and Liza Marklund. She said: “Publishers are looking for great books, and today it doesn’t really matter where the author comes from, as long as the book is good. Through the Scandicrime boom the publishers have opened their eyes for all kinds of literature from Scandinavia.”
Sam Edenborough, agent at translation rights specialist Intercontinental Literary Agency, expects the rise in translated titles to continue, partially because of the groundswell built up by the bestselling crime titles of the past few years, but also as a result of the rising popularity of awards such as the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.
Yet Edenborough also pointed to shifts in agenting structures. He said: “More and more agents in the UK are representing foreign authors—whether via their publishing houses or on behalf of other agents—and that has put an increased emphasis on British publishers to consider works from other parts of the world.
“On top of that, there is an increasing rise of the literary agent in other language markets. There are now a number of very progressive agents across Europe; the Pontas Literary & Film Agency in Spain has just hired United Agents’ Jessica Craig, for example. There is definitely an emphasis in these other markets to really target the UK.”
Pan Macmillan has invested heavily in translation, perhaps most famously with Roberto Bolaño and Andrea Camilleri. Just this week, imprint Picador announced winning a series of auctions for titles from five different European countries, including French writer Monica Sabolo’s 2013 Prix de Flore-winning All This Has Nothing to do With Me. Picador publisher Paul Baggaley credits the publisher’s translated success to infrastructure: “You can’t do [translated fiction] half-heartedly. You have to build up networks and develop relationships with readers, translators and international publishers and scouts—which we’ve done—to get the best information at the earliest time.”
The translation itself, of course, adds additional costs. The Society of Authors says UK publishing’s average fee for translators is £88.50 per 1,000 words, so around £8,000 for a novel of average length. Costs can be defrayed by grants, which Freudenheim said are being made easier to apply for and can “make a huge difference to the financial viability of projects”. Baggaley acknowledged the translation costs but pointed out that the initial point of entry tends not to be astronomical. “You’re probably not going to be getting into a 12-publisher auction to acquire these books,” he said.