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  • Gijs Verhoeff

Lost in translation(s): a world to win by investing in translations in the EU

From 11 to 19 March, it is ‘Boekenweek’ in the Netherlands, aimed at promoting literature to a Dutch audience. However, literary translations are under pressure in the Netherlands. In this article, Gijs Verhoeff discusses the use of reading foreign literature and the role of English in the European Union, in a plea to read more literary translations.


In December 2022, the Dutch media organisation NRC published a new episode of one of my favourite podcasts Tussen de regels (Between the lines) on “Beautiful books that we overlook.” In this episode, Toef Jaeger shared two developments in literary translations in the Netherlands. Firstly, never were so many books sold in the Dutch market. Until 2014 there were always at least 10 literary translations on the bestseller list in the Netherlands, yet this has been no more than seven after 2014. 2021 was an absolute low point with only two literary translations in the bestseller list: Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart and Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen. Secondly, there are a third fewer translations compared with 15 years ago, and according to Jaeger, those books that are translated are usually ones that have already been performing well on the American market.


Building on this example of the state of literary translations in the Netherlands, this article takes a broader European look at the practice of translation in the contemporary European Union by exploring the following question: why does translation matter to ‘Europe’ and what should be done?


1. The use of reading foreign literature


I feel that there have been three indispensable elements that made my time as an Erasmus Mundus student a truly international experience: 1) an international classroom, 2) travelling (particularly by train), and 3) reading books from non-Dutch authors. By reading translations of Czesław Miłosz in Poland and Bohumil Hrabal in Czechia, I feel like I learned something unique about the language, the humour, the history, and stories of peoples that could not have been communicated in any other way than through literature. You probably have experienced something similar.


In his famous book Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson devotes a lot of attention to how the emancipation of vernaculars have impacted (or been a catalyst to) the rise of nation states, that in turn are the main point of reference for the way we look at the world today. Vernaculars are an extremely powerful adhesive in how national citizens communicate and think of themselves. The extreme success of print in vernaculars has transformed the world we live in today. Print most frequently incorporates newspapers, but also books. Both caused a democratisation of knowledge and transformed the world.


The lack of a lingua franca in the European Union is frequently mentioned as the reason for why a truly European public sphere has not occurred yet. Instead, public spheres are fragmented in many national public spheres, sharply separated by language barriers. Currently, European media choose between two options: either writing in a language that comes closest to a lingua franca (like Are We Europe, Politico Europe and European Waves) or translating articles (like VoxEurop, euro|topics, and European Review of Books).


2. English as lingua franca


The first choice feels like a logical option and is also what European Waves has elected by publishing exclusively in English. This makes sense, as English has arguably become the European lingua franca since the 1990s, after overtaking French. Alice Leal describes in her book English and translation in the European Union how 95% of EU staff reported that English was the most-used language in performing their duties. This is not surprising, but still a staggering conclusion considering that the EU has 24 official languages, and English, French and German share the status of “procedural languages.” Every final legal act of the EU is published in 24 languages, but it is nearly certain that it was first written in English and then translated to any of the other 23 languages. The exercise of translation and interpretation costs the EU €1 billion per year and I argue it is worth it!


The position of English is interesting, in that for most EU citizens, it is not their mother tongue. Although English is widely taught in schools from a very young age, it is not an actual common tongue but a foreign language. In 2016, 35,4% of adults in the EU-28 reported that they do not speak a second language. Considering that English represents 80% to 90% of available translations in Europe, many European books are thus not accessible to European citizens to read without translations into their mother tongue. In turn, an English reader will have a hard time stumbling across a translation considering that only 3% of all books published in English are translations. Simply having translations of literature and media available in English is not enough to overcome the linguistic fragmentation of European society, politics and markets.


3. Looking ahead: the future of the translations


So, what do we need? More translations of ‘other’ literature and a selection of literature that is not filtered through an Anglophone lens. Thanks to French President Emanuel Macron, all of the EU is talking about “strategic autonomy,” and maybe we could learn from the French tradition of culture politics by also thinking about how we can claim our own European narrative by decreasing our dependence on English (as argued in this powerful essay by Wolfgang Münchau). In their “new translation plea,” the Dutch Expertise Centre for Literary Translations cites Jan Willem Bos, a Dutch translator of Romanian: “If we want to understand something of each other, if we – within Europe, but also outside – truly want to get to know each other, we need access to each other’s literature.” This means that it does not suffice only to translate literature into English, but more importantly from small languages into other small languages. Translations could help bring EU citizens closer together and learn from our stories, to ultimately strengthen (or build) a shared narrative.


P.S. I should also mention two great initiatives. Firstly, the new series from European Waves, called “European Novel(ties)” covers exactly this: great European novels that are ready to be read by you, preferably in a translation in your mother tongue (support your native translators by buying their books!). Secondly, the European Review of Books, that publishes bilingually: in the mother tongue of the author, and in an English translation. The result is a beautiful anthology of European writing. Go check out both and let me know if you have more tips!


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