There are a number of bestselling novels that make it big in the English-speaking world despite this not being their original language. You’ve got Stieg Larsson’s world-famous trilogy, Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, and the entire works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, to name but a few modern examples.
So why is it that the largely monolingual populations of English-speaking countries don’t fully embrace translated texts as much as they often should?
In fact, I’m currently reading, The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Swede, Jonas Jonasson, which is a fine, albeit rare, example of a novel not originally in English that has made it big in the English-speaking publishing world. These foreign translations are, I’ll admit, on the whole easier to read; they often use more simplified language and sentence structures, but the real merit is in the insight into culture and history that you get. Not only do these texts refer innately to less familiar lands, but different perspectives, lifestyles, insights. Fiction does, I argue, give you a far better taste of a country than a travel guide or a Wikipedia page.
So what with all the merits of foreign-language texts, isn’t it a wonder that more don’t make it big on English-speaking turf? I spent two weeks works in the International Rights department of a big London publishing firm, and was pretty surprised to find that they were only really concerned with getting the English texts out rather than the foreign ones in. Maybe foreign-language texts don’t get a fair run because we think they’ll confuse us, but really they broaden our horizons and make us feel as if we’re speaking another language even though the words on the page are very much English.