Random thoughts on translations

I recently got some happy news: in addition to English and Bulgarian, my book, FOUL DAYS, is also going to be available in Polish, Spanish and German. This is enormously exciting for me. Growing up, I had to rely on translations as English-language books were hard to find. This meant that the only books I had access to were the ones Bulgarian publishers had decided to buy and translate: those were usually the bigger, buzzier titles in every genre, though occasionally, a lesser known book would make it through the sieve because a Bulgarian editor had fallen in love with it. In any case, compared to the thousands of titles coming out in English every month, only a small percentage got translated—there were times when I’d read literally every single fantasy and science fiction book in the bookstore.

So, I’m thrilled that readers will have access to FOUL DAYS in multiple languages. However, there is a somewhat bittersweet tinge to my happiness. The truth is, if I’d kept writing in Bulgarian, which is my mother tongue, the chances of my books getting translated into any other language would have been slim. A lot of foreign markets import most of their books from the Anglosphere. It’s funny to think that in order for Polish readers to read my very Eastern European book, I had to write it in English. If I wanted other Slavic readers to be able to read it, my best bet was writing it in English.

The American book market, which is the biggest in the world, is extremely unlikely to buy and translate a foreign-language fantasy, unless it somehow makes a huge splash (like how they didn’t translate Andrzej Sapkowski’s books until the Witcher video games got popular). The English-language market exports books for translation—it rarely imports them. Anglophone culture (and US culture in particular) gets exported to everywhere in the world, but foreign cultures rarely penetrate the Anglosphere.

I think this is a real shame. Translated books, like foreign films, seem to have a strange elitism attached to them in English. I’ve heard multiple arguments about how something is always lost in translation—but I’ve rarely heard the arguments about how much can be gained; about how a translation is always, by necessity, an interpretation, but how a good translator can add value to the original rather than detract from it. As a result of translations from foreign languages into English being relatively rare, especially when it comes to the SFFH genres, readers are missing out on so many books—books that draw inspiration from sources unknown in English and, as a result, would feel fun and fresh.

This, ultimately, is a loss not only for English-language readers, but also for authors, because we don’t have access to all these literary conversations we could be having with colleagues from outside the Anglosphere. It’s also a loss for foreign-language authors, confined to their local markets—and I have been told by friends that local markets can often feel hostile to local authors, as publishers prefer to put their money towards translations that have already proven themselves in the Anglosphere.

There are, obviously, no easy solutions here, and nothing that can be done overnight. I by no means want to sound ungrateful my book is getting translated, I’m absolutely ecstatic about it. It’s just, as my debut author group is buzzing with happy news about all the different languages our books will be available in, it makes me sad that for many authors not writing in English, a translation deal remains a pipe dream. And, more selfishly, as someone who can only read in two languages, I’m sad that I’m missing out on so many great books.

(This post was originally published in my April 2023 Newsletter. If you’d like to receive similar musings in your inbox, please consider subscribing!)

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