The work of translating Arabic books into English gets a boost

Ahead of the second annual Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize, the founder talks about the rising popularity of literary works from around the world and the push to get more Arabic books translated into English.

With Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo's Scandinavian crime fiction continuing to sell millions, and Haruki Murakami's forthcoming novel one of the publishing events of 2011, fiction translated into English has surely never been so popular. In Murakami's case, the desire to get IQ84 into the eager hands of English readers as quickly as possible has been so great, the third instalment was translated by a completely different person from the previous two volumes.

An odd decision, but if nothing else it would seem to confirm that these are heady days for in-demand literary translators. Well, not quite. The Harvill Secker Young Translators' Prize, now in its second year and due to announce a winner tomorrow, was set up specifically because a new generation of translators is finding it difficult to break through.

"It's of course natural that publishers only want to commission very experienced translators, because it costs a lot of money and you want the best you can get," says the founder of the prize, Briony Everroad. "But it means those starting out in translation find it almost impossible to stand out against that kind of competition."

And Everroad should know - she publishes Nesbo during her day job as an editor at Harvill Secker. She founded the prize last year in the hope that it would redress the balance for those under 35. But what makes the prize unique amid the multitude of literary awards is that the entrants all have to translate the same piece into English. Last year, the original story was in Spanish. And intriguingly, this year the chosen language is Arabic.

"We don't have nearly enough books being translated into English, considering the amount of people who speak Arabic," she says. "So first of all, this is about encouraging Arabic speakers to try out translation. But in the long term we also hope more books from the Arab world will be published in English."

Schemes such as Beirut39, last year's compendium of the 39 best authors writing in Arabic under the age of 40, have undeniably helped raise the profile of Arabic writing. Indeed, the Young Translators' Prize is using a story, Layl Qouti, by one of the Egyptian contributors to the collection, Mansoura Ez Eldin.

And while the likes of Bahaa Taher from Egypt and Lebanon's Elias Khoury continue to grow in popularity via excellent translations, it's a little too glib to say the Arab Spring will bring a greater interest in contemporary fiction translated from Arabic. For a start, it took seven years for Khoury's Yalo to make its way to English bookshops. Nevertheless, Everroad is hopeful that the seismic events of this year might have some impact on the publishing decisions of the future.

"It does feel a little like many English-speaking readers see the Arabic-speaking world in very broad brush strokes, solely via the news," she says. "People don't know the nuances of the different cultures, so it seems to me that translations of books are hugely important, really."

But for all her enthusiasm, surely it's hugely difficult for Everroad and her judges Anthony Calderbank (who has translated a wide range of Arabic literature), journalist Maya Jaggi and author Penelope Lively to read the same story over and over again.

"I admit, it does get a little tedious," she laughs. "Last year we had 230 entries. But what is fascinating is how differently people approach the same story, both in terms of the word choice and tone they use. One of the most difficult things in translation is getting the sense of the voice; the translator has to mimic the author's, but also find their own style when they're writing in English. So the entries that stand out are the ones that can capture that."

Everrroad has been impressed by the quality despite a few comments on blogs, such as M Lynx Qualey's excellent ArabLit, that it was a tough story to translate. Entry figures are not at the level of last year - not a surprise considering there is not the same teaching infrastructure with Arabic translation. But 92 entries from across the world is pleasing and hopefully points towards a more healthy range of Arabic books translated into English in the future.

"I know it's difficult to compare the novels coming out of, say, the Middle East, with the boom in Scandinavian crime fiction," she says. "But overall the picture is really encouraging. A broader range of people have learnt the ropes of translation, and readers seem less concerned about trying something with a few foreign names or places."

Which, to be honest, seems a ridiculous stumbling block in the first place.

"Absolutely!" she laughs. "I've never really understood where this myth about fiction in translation being 'difficult' comes from. They're not difficult books, they're just from a different country. If there is a barrier, it's not to do with readers - it's that publishers themselves can't actually read the original books and make a decision on them. They have to go on a report, or sales figures."

Of course, it's important to point out that the quality of a book isn't wholly defined by whether it's translated into English. But talk to most authors writing in Arabic and they naturally would love the opportunity to reach a wider audience. And for the translators themselves, a healthier catalogue of books can turn an interest into a career.

"We've spoken to a lot of people who don't actually know whether they want to do translation or not, but this prize gives them a chance to try," she says. "But take last year's winner, Beth Fowler. Her translation from Spanish was absolutely outstanding, and from that [literary quarterly] Granta ran the story online and an interview with her. They then commissioned her to translate a couple of other short stories for them, and she went on to meet a new publishing company called And Other Stories. A year after the prize, her first full-length book translation for them, Open Door by Iosi Havilio, is out in November."

So, basically, the prize works.

"Yes," she says. "In fact it's worked even better than any of us could have hoped for."

The winner will be announced on September 28.