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Sales of Arabic translated fiction, along with translated fiction from China, Iceland and Poland, is seeing growth in the UK, according to research by Nielsen Book.  As if to underline this growth, the London Book Fair sees its first ever ‘Translator of the Fair’ – the author, playwright and translator Jeremy Tiang from Singapore.  Meanwhile, the Sharjah International Book Fair’s famous ‘rights’ souk – seen above – gets busier every year, as foreign publishers take advantage of generous translation grants.

Sales of Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad, translated by Jonathan Wright, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018, halted a slight decline in sales of translated Arabic fiction since 2014.  Novels in Polish, Icelandic and Chinese, all showed significant increases since 2014, with Polish at the top, then Icelandic and Chinese.  The sales are being driven by crime novels, science fiction and fantasy, and prize-winners.

Overall, the research – commissioned by the Man Booker International Prize – shows that in the UK sales of translated fiction grew last year by 5.5%, with sales worth £20.7m.  While the top three positions are all occupied by crime – Jo Nesbo’s The Thirst and Macbeth in first and second place, translated from Norwegian, followed by The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye, translated from Swedish – the rest of the top 20 are all literary.

Indeed, the research shows that in the UK, sales of translated literary fiction grew by 20% in 2018.  In a neat irony, given the angst over Britian’s decision to leave the European Union, almost all these literary titles are European.

“Despite what has clearly been a surge of interest in translated fiction, people still tend to cite the outdated ‘three percent’ statistic about the proportion of translated fiction published in the UK,” says Charlotte Collins, Co-Chair of the Translators Association. Collins, herself a translator, was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2016, with Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. She points not only to the sales figures, but to the amount of translated fiction – new or classic – now available for sale: “As we can see, this proportion has almost doubled in recent years, and is now at 5.63%.  This is really exciting news, and welcome confirmation that publishers have responded to the proven popularity and marketability of translated literature.”

Titles translated from French dominate sales of translated fiction in the UK, although for new books published in the past five years, Norwegian and Swedish are the most popular languages of origin. Languages in growing demand include Chinese and Arabic, as well as Icelandic and Polish. The latter follows Olga Tokarczuk’s win of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize with Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, and Poland being the subject of the London Book Fair’s Market Focus in 2017.

The success of Frankenstein in Baghdad, published by Penguin in the UK, is certainly good news for Arabic publishers who hope that the upward trend can be continued.