First Monday Blog: Translating More, Translating Better

| by John Burnside

Poet and writer John Burnside makes the case for literature in translation and recommends contemporary literature in French and German that UK publishers have, so far, neglected.

According to a recent Literature Across Frontiers report [1], the proportion of ‘all translations published and distributed in the United Kingdom and Ireland represented 3.16% [of total output], compared to 12.28% in Germany, 15.90% in France, 33.19% in Poland and 19.7% in Italy’ – which, by any measure, highlights the distressing and shameful lack of a well-supported translation culture in the UK.

That we British hugely undervalue the importance of translation is a fact that I have not only heard voiced frequently, but one I also raised myself, (rather unscientifically, it has to be said) in the French paper, Liberation, as long ago as 2005, (though the irony of complaining to a French readership about the feebleness of the UK’s translation culture did not escape me). That the most frequently translated books come from French (1217 books in a twelve year period) and German (729), and recent evidence that there has been a slight increase in production in both languages over the last five years should, I suppose, give heart to authors in those countries, but the numbers are still pitifully low. Worse still, even with this output, some of the best writers in Europe – some of the best living writers in the world, in fact – are either not available at all, or misleadingly underrepresented.

So here I am, complaining again. I am heartened by that slight increase since the last time I set up my soap box on this subject, but the simple fact is that, in the UK, we are not doing enough, as readers, as publishers and as arts-funders, to bring the very best of French- and German-language literature to a British readership. For this we are the poorer; however, in an attempt to stir the waters, and on a purely personal basis, (with limited space, I am the first to admit that I have left out some truly wonderful writers) I would humbly suggest, to British publishers, and British readers, the following French- and German-language writers, some of whom have not been published at all in this country, and almost none of whom have been as well-served as they ought to be. I should add that neither list is in any particular order.



In contrast with many of his peers, Jean Echenoz (born 1947) has been rather successful in the English-speaking world, (and rightly so). He is associated, by some critics at least, with the extrême contemporain, not a movement so much as an attempt at a unified field description of some trends in current French writing – a detached quality, a seeming emphasis on ‘facts’, interior monologue, characters locked into a seemingly constant, and sometimes imaginary state of crisis – but whether the label is useful when applied to Echenoz, (or to other writers of similar calibre, such as Annie Ernaux and Vassilis Alexakis) is at the very least up for discussion. Echenoz is, for me, a contemporary master of existential – and sometimes very dark – humour, a writer who is second to none, Kafka included, in making us laugh out loud in the most absurd or frightening situations. English readers new to his work might start with 1914, a powerful account of the first industrialised war, elegantly translated by Linda Coverdale. More of this, please, publishing houses.

Where Echenoz has gained some exposure here, I think I can say with some fairness that I have met only a few non-specialist British readers who know of Régis Jauffret, (born 1955). It may be that his subject matter – the madness of everyday life, and of the most basic human relationships such as the couple, or the family – is considered too ‘dark’ by some publishers, but whatever the reason his work is painfully under-represented in English, (and of those translations that can be found, many originate with the Gallimard Folio series, which publishes works in French with accompanying English translation for the education market. British readers with some French can use the Folio edition to jump into Histoire d’Amour (Love Story) a shocking, but oddly cool account of an obsessive schoolteacher’s sadistic ‘affair’ with the strangely passive young woman he follows home after seeing her on a bus. Sadly, however, Jauffret’s masterpiece, Asiles des Fous, remains untranslated.

Patrick Deville (born 1957) has dedicated his life to a variety of literary projects, often in the service of other writers and the reading public – and most especially, literary translation. He founded the Maison des Ecrivains Etrangers et Traducteurs de Saint-Nazaire over twenty years ago to support writers and translators in their work, alongside the highly-regarded literary journal of the same name – and these activities have sometimes distracted readers from his own work, which is politically and philosophically astute, at once witty and humane and historically insightful in the highest degree. His publishers, Seuil, describe him as a ‘grand voyageur et esprit cosmopolite’ – and for once this is more than hype. If I had to choose just one book of his, I would pick Kampuchéa, which flows through the history of Cambodia as the Mekong River flows across the land, from Henri Mouhot’s ‘discovery’ of Angkor in 1860, to the darkest moments of the Pol Pot regime, just over a century later.

Born in Greece in 1943, Vassilis Alexakis studied in France, returned to his homeland for military service, but was driven into exile after the establishment of the 1967 military junta. One of his books has been translated in the USA, (Foreign Words, 2006), but what I think of as his masterpiece, Contrôle d’Identité has yet to appear in English. This is an astonishing book, not at all easy to summarise, (and if it were, the spoilers would start cascading thick and fast), so perhaps the best thing to do is try to find a point of comparison for English readers – again, not so easy, but I would suggest the atmosphere of, say, James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, with its central image of the other self, of the familiar yet impossible double. Perhaps the underlying ideas of the book – the divided self, inner exile, the nature of the other – derive from Alexakis’s sense that he is both French and Greek and at the same time neither, yet it is also about the role that language plays in our lives. A truly mysterious and original work, this is a novel that cries out for a skilled and inventive translator.

Last, but by no means least, the remarkable Stéphane Audeguy (born 1964) has at least two books available in English. Find A Theory of Clouds, (published by Harcourt in 2008) – an elaborate history of clouds, worthy of Calvino himself, told by an enigmatic Hiroshima survivor hose elaborate fictions bring in a wide range of quirky personae, from a Quaker cloud-hunter to a painter who sounds very much like John Constable – and ask yourself why you haven’t read anything else by this brilliant, prolific writer. There are, quite literally, a dozen more where that came from. He is also a superb essayist and editor.


Austria and Germany

Daniel Kehlmann
, (born 1975) is already well-known in the English-speaking world for Die Vermessung der Welt, (Measuring the World) an internationally bestselling account of the friendship between the biologist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, and the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. He is, however, an extraordinarily versatile writer and the other novels presently available in English, (currently Me and Kaminski, Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes, and F: A Novel) reveal both that versatility and the unifying theme that runs through his oeuvre – or rather, the complex set of ideas about biography, fame, reputation and identity that mark his work out as philosophically demanding, even where the surfaces are beautifully and deceptively constructed. I recommend F: A Novel as a starting point, but we should not forget that there is more of this brilliant writer to discover and we can only hope that the success of Measuring the World is keeping translators busy on Kehlmann’s essays and the still untranslated earlier fiction.

I first encountered the work of Thomas Glavinic, (born 1972) when I read the English translation of his terrifying novel, Die Arbeit der Nacht, (Night Work, translated by John Brownjohn and published by Canongate, in 2008). The appearance of this novel, and two others in English, should have marked the beginning of a notable career for this Austrian writer; instead, possibly because of the ‘darkness’ of his work, he has received nothing like the recognition he deserves in the English-speaking world. My favourite of his novels, (though it is hard to choose) is Der Kameramörder (The Camera Killer, published on-demand for a time, but not currently available – though I understand an audiobook will become available later this year) which combines close psychological scrutiny of two holidaymaking couples with a searing critique of the mass media, during the publicity frenzy surrounding a horrific crime. In any just world, Glavinic would be an international star, as it is, it is our loss that, so far, publishers here have not been able to do justice to the achievements of a truly unique writer.

In sheer contrast, stylistically and in terms of subject matter, the young Austrian novelist, essayist and visual artist Teresa Präauer, (born 1979) creates magical worlds of the imagination, in which her protagonists – the young and the old, teenagers, outsiders – use images and stories to build mythic realms of frail elegance and beauty to set alongside, and in contrast to, the given world. Präauer is a gifted, ironic and deceptively enchanting performer and, as an artist, she brings a unique visual sense to her work. She has three novels to date, the most recent being Oh Schimmi, (August 2016); my pick for the moment is Johnny und Jean, a harsh and funny book about art and art-making, sexual identity and the pitfalls of friendship.


There is so much happening in Austria – one could mention here, among others, the extraordinary Clemens J. Setz, (born 1982) whose deeply disturbing novel Indigo was published by Serpent’s Tail in 2014, (let us hope there are more to follow) – but it seems unfair not to add one German-born writer here. The only problem is that there are so many to choose from – a fact that is not reflected either here or in the US in terms of book sales. However, a book that really ought to appeal to a wide audience, for its stylistic strengths as much as its subject matter, is Die Liebe der Väter, (The Love of the Fathers) by Thomas Hettche, (born 1964, he currently has one book available in English, What We Are Made Of, published here in 2008). This moving ‘family novel’ about a man’s struggle to become a true father to his estranged daughter while on a holiday to Sylt, his own childhood summer place, is not only beautifully wrought, but highly topical. It depends, though, on finding translators in Britain with the stylistic ability, and the time, to do such work justice. For that we need more support, from arts bodies as well as publishers: if there is one clear contrast between the UK and the rest of Europe that might explain our translation shortfall, it could be put down to this. Translators are artists, they are essential to reading and as such, they need time and the financial support to do the best work that is in them.


[1] Publishing translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland 1990 – 2012, Literature Across Frontiers

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John Burnside photo c Helmut Fricke

Poet and novelist John Burnside was born on 19 March 1955 in Dunfermline, Scotland, and now lives in...


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