Classifying Translated Books
By Niina Bailey, Oisin Harris, Toby Smollet and Kate Williams
Books are classified into different categories and translated books are no different. However, when classifying translated books you need to consider the original language and the language it has been translated into. Do you create a separate category just for translated books or classify them in some other way? If you had a separate category for them, how would you classify the books within it? Outside of the publishing industry, a similar example is the term "World Music," a term for non-Western traditional music. This classification is vague as it encompasses so much. The same could be said about a "Translated Books" category. So how are translated books currently classified? This week we look at how bookshops, publishers and Amazon approach the problem.
The library I work at uses the Library of Congress system, where books, including translations and criticism, are classed by the original language of the literature. Bookshops sometimes follow this method as it’s easy for readers to navigate, and it highlights the book’s non-Anglophone origin. As the recent #NametheTranslator campaign shows, it’s not always immediately clear if a book is translated or not, which might affect how a bookstore promotes it. Some bookshops have a separate section, others a regular display for books in translation similar to how a record store might have a World Music category. Perhaps a key differentiating factor for bookstores compared to record stores is that translators are mediating the product, which isn’t the case for music.
Another method is shelving books by publisher, which can work quite well for bookshops with an established translated books audience as they know what presses focus on translation already. I personally think that lumping translated books together based solely on them being translated is not helpful. Some booksellers advocate using tables for translated books, arguing that this encourages readers familiar with one translated author to maybe discover another.
Equally many bookshops, particularly smaller independents, have started integrating translated books with general fiction. Certain movements like Women in Translation Month offer great opportunities for bookshops to market translated books. Some bookshops like London’s Librería classify books based on broad themes like "Wanderlust," "Enchantment for Disenchanted" or ‘"The City" to maximise serendipity.
Publishers classify their translated books in different ways depending on what kind of books they usually publish. Unsurprisingly, given the Anglophone publishing industry’s notorious underrepresentation of translations into English, most publishers do not have a dedicated ‘Books in Translation’ classification. None of those most prominent in the U.K. do, although some have imprints dedicated to translated books such as Quercus Books’ imprint Arcadia, which is part of the Hachette Group.
Evidently, indie publishers with a special interest in translation, such as Granta and Fitzcarraldo Editions, do have dedicated "Books in Translation" classifications. Many of them, such as Comma Press and Pushkin Press, classify their translated books using traditional genres, while others have taken different approaches. Other Stories, for example, offer the possibility to filter the books on their website via the original language, and Open Letter Books to filter via country of origin.
Rarely do publishers have a dedicated classification system for books in translation, and when they do, they are often grouped together and classified as ‘Translated Books.’ We could argue that this is a good thing, as it gives us an easy way to see what books from outside the Anglophone world are on offer and facilitates their promotion. However, we could also argue that this is not such a good thing, as it means that books in translation are separated from mainstream publishing, making them seem exclusive and harder to seek out.
Unsurprisingly, Amazon, famously originally devised as an online marketplace for literature, sells more books globally than anyone else. This includes books which have been translated into English. However, there is no "Translated Literature" or equivalent category to be found on their website. Books are instead categorised in other ways. For instance, In Search of Lost Time (trans. by Christopher Pendergast) by Marcel Proust falls under the categories of "Fiction Classics," "Literary Fiction" and "Contemporary Fiction."
As well as a bookseller, Amazon is also a significant publisher of literature in its own right. Where the retail side of the company takes a translation-blind approach to the categorisation of literature, Amazon has its own imprint for what it describes as "World Literature." This nomenclature is reminiscent of "World Music," a term infamously detested by many in the music industry such as David Byrne.
Much like "World Music," the term "World Literature" does feel perplexing in its attempt to group such a wide range of authors under one umbrella – for reference, Amazon also has one imprint (Montlake) dedicated to romance literature. It is hard to see how a biography of Lola Montez could be grouped with A Man (trans. by Eli K. P. William) by Keiichiro Hirano. This article has discussed the issue of publishers gathering all translated fiction under one umbrella. However, the fact that Amazon only use the term "World Literature" for their publishing house does at least avoid the issue of marketing these works as something else.