Never Mind the Prizes, Sell the Translations

By Sweet, Matthew | The Independent (London, England), January 19, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Never Mind the Prizes, Sell the Translations


Sweet, Matthew, The Independent (London, England)


Beryl Bainbridge's novel Every Man for Himself may be the bookies' favourite to win the pounds 21,000 Whitbread Book of the Year Award tomorrow but its whippersnapper rival has already beaten it at another, lucrative game: roaring success abroad.

From Asia to the Middle East and Eastern Europe, readers are devouring John Lanchester's first novel, The Debt to Pleasure. While William Hill gives Lanchester odds of 4-1 to take the Whitbread, his representatives at literary agents AP Watt have sold his tale for translation into 21 languages, including Bulgarian, Chinese, Finnish, German, Hebrew and Italian. It had been bought for what AP Watt calls "very good sums" by 10 countries before the novel even appeared in the UK.

And Bainbridge? The quirky English writer's account of the sinking of the Titanic has been sold to just two countries: Germany and Greece. The international success of Lanchester's novel, which tells the story of a murderous and food-obsessed English aesthete, has surprised its author: "It never occurred to me that we'd sell any foreign rights at all," he confesses. "I thought there was a kind of linguistic friction in the language that would resist translation." He puts it down to the subject matter: "Food's a hot button with everyone - the notion of the connection between it and violence gets people interested in different ways." And has he read himself in translation? "Luckily my languages aren't good enough - checking over your translations is quite a good way of going mad." It takes a mixture of luck, sassy foreign-rights agents and a dearth of native literary talent for a British book to do well abroad. British humour does not appear to get lost in translation; the Spanish, for instance, love Stephen Fry's novels The Liar and The Hippopotamus. Even that most difficult of vernaculars, street-Glaswegian, as immortalised by Irvine Welsh, is lapped up by Continental readers. Trainspotting has been a pan-European hit but is a particularly big seller in drug-liberal Holland. Graham Swift's Last Orders, a novel full of South London expressions and references which its author suggested might spell "trouble ahead for translators", was picked up by 17 foreign publishers before it won last year's Booker Prize.

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