Feature Article

  • Datamining the Riches of Spain in Translation

    By Dr. Katie King

    Digital technology has triggered a wave of translation titles, delivering new books, new voices and new audiences from niche and traditional publishers.

    Spain has been a beneficiary of that surge, giving rise to English-language translations of authors who write in Catalan, Basque and Galician - a welcome recognition of Spain’s multi-lingual literary history and culture.

    On my website, Translation 3.0, Spain in Translation to English, I chart the evolution of Spain in translation to English over the last 12 years.

    A data visualization tool graphically highlights important trends to increase visibility of how the English-speaking world connects with Spanish culture.

    These graphs show that the number of translations of Basque, Catalan and Galician into English has grown consistently over the last decade, while translations of Spanish language authors from Spain has grown, but in peaks and troughs.

    When analyzing the impact of technology on literary translation, it’s important to clarify where the numbers come from. In the digital age we can gather, collate, analyze and display data more easily, but getting detailed, up-to-date translation data is still a challenge.

    I use data compiled by the University of Rochester’s Three Percent Database, with the permission of its creator Chad Post. The database, now hosted on the Publisher’s Weekly website, includes many languages and countries from which I’ve extracted data specific to Spain to create a visual snapshot of trends there.

    Chad Post compiles and manages Three Percent mostly on his own. If he stopped, his work would be difficult to replicate and there are no other publicly available aggregators capturing this same information.

    Even with his strenuous contributions, the literary translation data is incomplete. Resource limits mean the database currently excludes any works that are new translations of previously translated titles. So, a new translation of Quixote or Lorca will not be found there. It doesn’t include plays or screenplays. And the data is limited to publications between 2008 and 2020.

    To be listed, the onus is on publishers to send the data to Chad; some either don’t have the time or aren’t familiar with the database and, additionally, to be included, the title has to be available for distribution and purchase in the United States.

    Chad’s data does include 12 useful data points including ISBN, author and translator names and genders, genre (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, children’s), publication date, price, publisher, language and country. It doesn’t include information about the original work’s ISBN, publisher, or publication date. The number of pages of both the original and the translated version would also be useful. It would also help to have more detailed genre designations.

    Other translation databases in Spain tell a different story, due to varied parameters for inclusion of content.

    The Basque Language Institute, at the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao publishes a Basque literature in translation catalogue showing 126 titles in English. The Three Percent data shows only 11.

    The Instituto Ramon Llull in Barcelona lists 196 Catalan translations into English between 2008 and 2020. If you search the Three Percent data for the same period there are only 64. The Xunta de Galicia Portico of Galician Literature lists 106 titles of Galician literature translated into English compared to 54 on the Three Percent.

    All these databases offer varying numbers because of the different rules applied to them. They are all useful in tracking trends and finding partial information.

    But the real question is why, in the digital age, isn’t all of this important information readily available and searchable in a central repository or library database?

    When it comes to technology and literary translation, we have to acknowledge a gap; a black hole of missing data. So, while we can follow broad trends, much more needs to be done to gather, process and make publicly available the data that allows us to understand what’s really going on.

    Working with the data that we do have, we can extrapolate some important trends about translated Spain in the digital age.

    The first is that a small publisher with big passion can have an outsize impact on niche publishing.

    The most dramatic example is Small Stations Press, founded in 2007 by British translator Jonathan Dunne. Based in Bulgaria, Small Stations is the biggest publisher of Spain’s literature in English over the last 12 years and Dunne is the single most prolific translator of Spain’s literature.

    Dunne translates and publishes mostly authors and poets who write in Galician, and his impact on making the literature of Galicia accessible to English language readers cannot be overstated. Of the 54 translations of Galician literature in English in the last 12 years, Small Stations has published 47.

    In an audio interview with Chad Post recorded earlier this year, Dunne said he was motivated purely by his passion for Galician literature, “to just get the author out there.”

    He said Small Station’s classics and fiction titles sold well, but he was eager for the world to know more about the YA fiction of Galicia in English, to hear truly new voices.

    It’s instructive to note that only two women appear in among the 15 most frequently translated authors of Spain, and neither writes in Spanish.

    Elena Gallego Abad, called the J.K. Rowling of Spain for her YA series Dragal, writes in Galician. Four of her novels have been translated by Dunne and published by Small Stations.

    Mercè Rodoreda, the post-Civil War Catalan novelist, has four novels published by Open Letter Press, whose publisher is the ubiquitous Chad Post.

    Both of these passionate publisher/advocates of the literature of Spain are giving the English-speaking world access for the first time not just to important voices of the national languages of Spain's autonomous regions, but also to voices of women.

    Much more work remains to be done to understand the true impact of Spain in translation to English. The data doesn’t show award winners, such as The Dinner Guest, by Gabriela Ybarra, which was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize; Like the Fading Shadow, by Antonio Muñoz Molina, which was shortlisted for the same prize that year; or Mac’s Problem, by Enrique Vila-Matas, which was longlisted for the 2020 Booker International Prize.

    In what must be a first for the literature of Spain in English, three non-Spanish language poets from Spain were honored in 2020 by the University of Rochester’s Best Translated Book Award. Book of Minutes, by Catalan poet Gemma Gorga; Camouflage, by Galician poet Lupe Gómez; and Catalan Poems, by Pere Gimferrer were all shortlisted for the 2020 BTB poetry prize.

    Advances in technology have created an interconnected global audience interested in new storytellers, have developed new publishing tools that allow passionate editors to publish previously un-translated titles, and have led to low-cost distribution solutions.

    But technology has not resolved the lack of centralized data about this phenomenon, which limits detailed comprehension of the trends.

    A 2012 report, Three Percent? Publishing Data and Statistics on Translated Literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland - 2013, by Literature Across Frontiers and the Mercator Institute for Media, Languages and Culture at Aberystwyth University, Wales, highlighted this problem in the U.K. and Ireland, and called on the British Library to create a digital template for translated titles that publishers would be required to use to register titles. The standardized template would form the basis for a mechanism of data extraction that would allow the library to compile and update translated titles data once a year.

    Spain’s Biblioteca Nacional could, and should, do the same. The job of aggregating information about a nation’s literature in translation might be difficult, but it is vital for a fuller understanding of how that nation’s culture is perceived. Technology can help, but it also requires funding and strong advocates.