Unlocking the world of Asian literature in English and beyond

 

Translation is all about bridging cultures. Nowhere is this clearer than in the fast-growing popularity of translated fiction in English-speaking countries worldwide. Over two million of the books sold in the UK in 2022 were originally written in languages other than English. Among these, Asian literature is increasingly prevalent. Japanese fiction accounts for around a quarter of translated works. Korean is close behind. Yet even this is far from all that Asian literature has to offer the English-speaking world. Let’s take a look at what is being done – and what could be done – to unlock the world of Asian literature in English and beyond:

The role of translators as cultural bridges

The growing popularity of translated fiction wouldn’t be possible without highly skilled translators. Translators have been working, often behind the scenes, to bridge cultures and facilitate clear communication for centuries.

Consider Fu Lei, whose French-Chinese translations were so well-regarded the French embassy named an award after him. Or Raymond de Toledo, whose scientific Arabic translations bridged the great cultural divide of the Middle Ages.

Most people think that the role of translators is simply to convert text in one language to words in another.

However, it’s more accurate to say a translator’s job involves helping people born to different cultures understand one another’s meaning. Their customs and traditions. Their perspective. The very world in which they live.

 

The magic of translation in connecting worlds

To connect two cultures, two worlds, a translator needs a deep and nuanced understanding of both. They need to understand the meaning and intent of the original work in the context in which it was written.

How else can they ensure their translation accurately and naturally reproduces it in a way that will resonate with a different cultural audience while remaining true to the original work’s identity?

With such a connection, the world of a grandmother in India (A Dumb Buffalo Speaks, Yendluri Sudhakar) or the sadly relevant experience of people in Palestine (Minor Detail, Adania Shibli) become vividly understandable.

Translation helps people see how connected and interdependent we all are and how relatable certain experiences can be. Even if they happened to someone in a very different place in a very different context to the one we know.

 

The global impact of Asian literature

Asian literature is hugely diverse. How can it not be?

It hails from a continent that includes 30% of the total land area of the Earth, contains almost 50 countries, and where around 2300 languages are spoken.

But while the interest of English speakers in some Asian cultures and cultural products is relatively established – manga has been a flagship Japanese cultural export for decades – popular interest in Asian literature is still relatively new.

The growth may be tied to the recent inception of awards like the International Booker Prize or the social cachet attached to the iconic blue and white Fitzcarraldo Editions of translated fiction.

There is also the massive BookTok phenomenon (TikTok videos about books) driven by reader recommendations.

 

Challenges and opportunities in translating Asian Literature

This is not to say that translating Asian literature isn’t without its challenges.

The differences between many Asian cultures and those of the world’s English-speaking countries are often very stark.

The languages themselves may be very different from one another too. It’s far from uncommon for Asian languages to be character-based, for example.

A good translation, of course, needs to be accurate. But the best translations of literature, in particular, also display deep cultural sensitivity.

Yet this is where translating Asian literature offers opportunities too. Because cultures that differ the most from each other also have the most to learn and experience.

 

Case studies in unlocking Asian literature

It’s not just the International Booker Prize that is promoting Asian literature and translated fiction in general on the world stage. 

The 2023 JCB Prize for Literature is one of India’s most famous awards for English language fiction. The shortlist is an exciting and diverse array of Asian literary talent:

  • The Secret of More by Tejaswini Apte-Rahm
  • The Nemesis by Manoranjan Byapari (translated from Bengali by V Ramaswamy)
  • Fire Bird by Perumal Murugan (translated from Tamil by Janani Kannan)
  • Mansur by Vikramajit Ram
  • I Named My Sister Silence by Manoj Rupda (translated from Hindi by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar)

This kind of promotion is highly necessary for Asian literature. You only need to look at the current state of Saudi literature to see why it is so important.

It is difficult to find even modern translated fiction from Saudi Arabia that doesn’t feature book covers that are all sand dunes, camels, and stereotypes of women in veils. Few works of Saudi literature are translated into English and the quality isn’t always good.

There is some hope though. Future initiatives funding the translation of more diverse titles that are more representative of the region are on the horizon. Perhaps they will be able to better promote what Saudi literature really has to offer.

 

Initiatives and projects promoting Asian literature in translation

Asian literature is growing in popularity in the UK. In the US though, barely 1 in 100 translated works sold in the past decade have a South Asian origin.

Asian literature has heavy competition from fiction translated from European languages. It’s also not uncommon for Asian authors who write in English and deservedly do well to crowd the translated “foreign language” marketplace.

It’s not surprising that change is called for. The South Asian Literature in Translation project started by the University of Chicago may be a model for how this change comes about. The SALT project will:

  • Send English-speaking publishers to South Asian countries
  • Teach their South Asian counterparts how publishing works in the UK and US
  • Begin translator training programs

2023 also saw notable events aimed at raising awareness and promoting Asian literature in translation.

These included “Translating a Global Language” at the London Book Fair on the challenges of translating Arabic for a global audience and more niche events like the Consultation on Monpa Language translation in India.

 

Impact of translated Asian literature on global readership

Stand-out bestsellers of recent years such as Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem have only been the highest-profile cases of Asian literature impacting a global audience.

As you might expect from such a diverse range of literary traditions, the appeal of the various strands of Asian literature is hugely wide-ranging.

Some English-speaking readers may enjoy the often lower-key, quietly mysterious works of Japanese fiction, for example. Or they might like the slightly edgier tone that is more common to Korean works.

There may also be a generational aspect. Younger people seem more interested than any generation before in the personal experiences of a diverse array of other people.

Stories featuring young women and people of colour seem to capture the imagination of a new generation of English-speaking readers. They’re much less concerned about a book being translated than their parents were. It may make them more interested.

 

Conclusion – bridging culture through translation

Sales of translated fiction in the English-speaking world are trending in a positive direction. Around 50% of translated works are sold to the under 35s, auguring well for the future too.

But there is still a lot of work to be done. Especially in areas like Saudi literature that are underrepresented or treated as stereotypes of their true selves.

Sympathetic, accurate, and compelling publishing translation by skilled translators will play a vital role in this.

Because only by understanding and appreciating the bases of different cultures can they be bridged and the world of Asian literature truly unlocked in English and beyond.

 

Do you need a compelling translation of a published work into or out of English?

Let’s talk. Asian Absolute has specialised in Asian languages since 2001. We work with specialist translators who have extensive experience in the subject matter they are translating.

Reach out to us today for a cost and commitment-free quote or to discuss your work in person.