A while back, prior to the Found in Translation Festival in Gdansk, I was interviewed for the Dwutygodnik online journal about the state of Polish translations (link).
At the time it was published, I received a bit of criticisms for painting a dark picture of how Polish writing was perceived in the English language world. I claimed English language readers, barring a few experts like Boyd Tonkin, didn’t know any Polish writers, that Polish books in translation were not distributed ably, and that Polish writers didn’t aspire to a readership beyond their own borders.
Those was just my opinions, collected over five years of busting my gut translating, publishing and promoting poems and stories from my places of birth – still, nothing, nothing could have prepared me for what happened a week after I came back from Gdansk.
Literature Across Frontiers has just published the first ever detailed study into literary translations from other languages into British English. The results can be read here in full (link), but the stats below tell a staggering story.
As a translator, I think I can not only do justice to converting words, but also numbers…
Poland found itself just outside the Top Ten countries, in terms of the last 15 years of book publishing. Not bad for a list of 30?
The table shows all the translated books, by year, published in the UK. But the stats, when analysed just that bit more carefully, reveal some staggering disparities:
Poland has half the population of France, the top placed country, yet we managed to publish 20 TIMES LESS translated books (1215 vs 65) over a decade and a half.
The country just ahead of us on the table, Denmark, has 7 TIMES FEWER people living in it, yet produced TWICE AS MANY translated books than Poland (118 vs 65).
Iceland, 13th on the list, managed to produce ALMOST AS MANY translated books as Poland with 130 TIMES FEWER people to write and translate them.
Overall, looking at the figures below, Poland loses out to all the countries in the table just around it put together – translators representing 38 million Polish writers managed 65 books, while translators representing 32 million Dutch, Portuguese, Icelandic, Danish, and Hungarian writers managed 525 in total – 8 TIMES MORE.
8 / Dutch 185 books (6 million people)
9 / Portuguese 121 books (10 million people)
10 / Danish 118 books (5.5 million people)
11 / Polish 65 books (38 million people)
12 / Hungarian 51 books (10 million people)
13 / Icelandic 50 books (0.3 million people)
Cultured Poles supposedly think of themselves as a nation of writers (link), but we know book sales in Poland are a problem and these statistics provide a deeply disconcerting picture. Statistics can of course lie, or at least tell half-truths, but whatever the story here, it needs much further thought and profound interrogation…
And if anyone out there thinks I am not accepting the blame for these figures, let me be the first to say – Mother Tongue, I have let you down…
Marek Kazmierski, Founding Editor