At the London Book Fair’s Literary Translation Center (once again sponsored by Amazon Crossing), much attention was given to the rights trade in translation for major languages—Spanish, German, and French often being cited as the top marketplaces. But an early panel on Tuesday, “Translating from the Margins,” sought to shed light on the advantages of working with underrepresented languages.
Deborah Smith, the translator responsible for the lauded English-language edition of Korean Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, noted that one of the joys of working with lesser-trafficked languages is that there is a surfeit of high quality books yet to be translated. “Though Korea is a modern country with a deep literature, until recently almost nothing has been published in English.”
Others echoed Smith's point. Panelist Mui Poopoksakul said that in working with Thai literature, she has found even the top authors are “very approachable” and “very grateful” for the interest. Poopoksakul is translating a book of short stories by the Thai writer Prabda Yoon which will be published by Smith’s new Tilted Axis Press, which had its launch just prior to the Fair on Monday.
“This will be the first major work of Thai translated into English and published in the U.K.,” noted Smith, whose publishing house is focused on bringing works into English from Central and South East Asian languages, including Bengali, Uzbek and Indonesian, among others.
Often, the smaller the footprint of the language, the more impactful a translator can be in serving as an ambassador. Moderator Antonia Lloyd Jones said she felt as much about her role as a translator of Polish literature, as did Peter Bush as a translator of Catalan and Nicky Harman, who helps run Read Paper Republic, a program which publishes a new short story translated from Chinese each week as a showcase of the author’s work.
The disadvantages of working with lesser-known languages are myriad, however. Not the least of which is the fact that there is often limited institutional support, in the form of translation grants, and rarely are editors capable of reading the books in their native languages.
“This means that you often have to have very long sample translations,” said Smith, “then you have to wait the 12-18 months for the acquiring editors to read the samples and make a decision, a period in which you will go unpaid.”