Some of the first stories you remember reading or hearing read aloud were probably translations, though chances are you didn’t realize it. “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? That was from the Danish. “Sleeping Beauty”? French. One Thousand and One Nights? Arabic. “Hansel and Gretel”? German. “Pinocchio”? Italian. “Cinderella”? French—or, depending how far you back you want to go, German, Italian, or even Greek. As you grew up, if you read The Swiss Family Robinson or The Count of Monte Cristo, did you notice who translated it?
Not so long ago, it was rare for a translator’s name to appear on a book’s title page, let alone a cover, or for a review of a foreign novel to mention its translator. With a handful of exceptions (Robert Fitzgerald’s Aeneid, anyone’s Proust), if a book originated in a language other than English, that fact was downplayed. Behind this disappearing act lay an assumption that readers would recoil from a book if they realized it was translated, fearing it would be “tricky or complicated or inaccessible,” as Samantha Schnee, the founding editor of the translation journal Words Without Borders, put it.
This is changing. In the span of about 15 years, foreign provenance, once treated almost like a guilty secret, has become a source of allure. As blockbusters from foreign lands invaded American best-seller charts in the first decade of the 21st century—Suite Française, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo—independent and nonprofit presses that specialized in translated literature sprang up from coast to coast; among them Archipelago Books (2003), Europa Editions (2005), Open Letter (2008), New Vessel Press (2012), and Restless Books (2013) in New York; Deep Vellum (2013) in Texas; and Transit Books (2015) in California. On November 14, the National Book Foundation, recognizing this shift in relevance, will award a Translated Literature prize—the first category added to the National Book Awards in more than two decades.