AT A recent literary event aboard a barge on the River Thames in London, Pia Juul, one of Denmark’s leading poets and writers, conversed with Ali Smith, a British novelist. Ms Juul’s voice was nearly drowned out by nearby diners and music playing upstairs. The symbolism was apt. The event’s sponsor, Peirene Press, has just published Ms Juul’s prize-winning “The Murder of Halland” in English translation. But as with Ms Juul’s performance on the barge, it seems nearly all of the best foreign voices go unheard in Britain and America.
When it comes to international literature, English readers are the worst-served in the Western world. Only 3% of the books published annually in America and Britain are translated from another language; fiction’s slice is less than 1%. This contrasts sharply with continental Europe: in France, 14% of books sold in 2008 were translations; in Germany, the figure was 8%, according to Literature Across Frontiers, a translation advocacy network. Yet the bias for English literature appears to be universal: two in three European translations are from English, and about 40% of all novels published in France.
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