Friday, 24 June 2011

Lost In Translation?

Edge Author Katie Dale asks: How much YA fiction gets lost in translation...?

I grew up devouring every American teen novel I could. I was obsessed. Sweet Valley High, Caroline B. Cooney, Judy Blume, I just could not get enough. I don't know if it's that there just weren't all that many British teen authors around at the time, or if it was also partly because of the saturation of TV by US shows - Dawson's Creek, Buffy, Friends, Lois and Clark, Gilmore Girls - or if it was just because it was so different from life in the UK, but I lived my teen years yearning to go to America, to be part of that very specific US high school experience, and ultimately it drove me to spend my second year of uni on an exchange in North Carolina (because Dawson's Creek was filmed there - yes, really!), despite the fact I was studying English Literature.

The US culture is so much a part of our own in the UK in fact, that I thought nothing of basing half of my first novel, Someone Else’s Life, in the US. I was sure that I was familiar enough with the country and the culture that I could write about it convincingly - after all, we speak the same language, right?

Wrong. Little did I realise just how many ways our languages are different. It's not just the terminology - tap/faucet, pavement/sidewalk etc but it's the culture itself. I was told having an answer-machine was very odd and old-fashioned in the US, to "get pissed" means getting drunk in the UK, but getting angry in the US and the UK school system was completely mystifying - what are GCSEs? What's a Sixth Form? - I have a whole list of things I had to reword or explain for the US edition! 

Other books too, have I know been modified to cross the Atlantic, even so far as having different titles - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone became Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, while the prize-winning The Two Pearls of Wisdom (Australian edition) is also entitled Eon: Dragoneye Reborn (US) and Eon: Rise of the Dragoneye (UK) - you can find a whole list of them here. And coverwise, books pretty much always have different covers for different editions.

So now my book’s also going to be published in Germany and Brazil, I wonder what else will need changing when the language/culture is TOTALLY different, and how much gets altered or lost in translation... 

And it’s also got me thinking.

If English-language fiction is translated and published all over the world, how come we don't have more international translated teen fiction over here? I'm struggling to think of many - Stieg Larsson, Cornelia Funke, and a few others I've probably missed, but why aren't there more? Why don't we have many novels from Brazil, Spain, France, India, China, Japan?

Do they not exist? Or is it that they just don't sell? Do English-speaking teens just find it easier to identify with characters in the culture they're familiar with? If so, why are dystopian and fantasy books so popular at the moment?

Teens love to travel - Gap years are becoming more and more popular, precisely because there is a hunger to see the world, to experience other cultures - why don't we offer a glimpse of this in teen fiction?

Isn't YA fiction about broadening our horizons, after all...?

What do you think? Why do you
 think our YA literature is so dominated by English-language authors, and do you think this should change? Would you like to read more foreign fiction?
Or do you prefer the more familiar characters and locations?

And Authors, have you had to change/edit your books much for foreign editions…?

UK Cover
US Cover
Someone Else's Life will be published by Simon & Schuster in the UK and Delacorte Press in the US in February 2012


  1. From a statistical point of view, I'd love to know how many native teen lit authors there actually are in countries such as Brazil.

  2. I've actually been contacted by a Brazilian author, the first I'd heard of, though that doesn't mean that they aren't many more we just don't hear about. I wonder what percentage of the Brazilian/foreign lit market is written by native authors, and how much is translated from English.

  3. Less than 3% of the fiction on sale in the UK is translated. So we could certainly do with many more translated books. We are very anglo-centric in the UK.
    My Dad said when the Americans joined WW2 they had to translate all the manuals - couldn't understand each other!
    Lovely post Katie.

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  5. It's such a shame that more work isn't available in translation. I stumbled upon 'I'm Not Scared' by Niccolo Ammananiti, translated from Italian, by chance, and loved it. Out of Shadows by Jason Wallace may not have needed translating, but it needed a UK publisher and he said that he literally had over a hundred rejections before finding one.
    My book isn't translated yet, but neither is it available abroad unless through Book Depository, or as an ebook/Kindle.
    The international book blogging community, helped by Twitter, is the only place where I learn of new books in foreign teen/YA lit. It would be good if publishers saw the huge gaps and potential, and went a little more global with their marketing...

  6. Certainly it would be great to have some YA books over here that originated abroad. I loved reading foreign fiction for my MA in Novel Writing. I now prefer teen fiction and would like to read some foreign stuff. It's not easy to know where to find it.

    But this is an adult view. Maybe teens themselves would feel differently?

    I did read one book for YA that I bought in Oslo (in Norwegian - boast, boast) but it was already a translation into Norwegian from Hebrew (Israeli?). So Israel has at least one writer? Or maybe she is/was American now, but writing in her native language? It's so complicated!

    It's possibly up to YA authors to seek out foreign YA material and mention it to their editors for possible translation. YA authors will be best positioned to know what our teens might go for, after all.