YA in Translation: An Overview

Today we’re joined by translator Ewa Kwatek, who summarizes her recent postgraduate research into cultural diversity in YA fiction in the UK & Germany…

By Ewa Kwatek

Although still a relatively new genre, young adult (YA) fiction has increased in popularity over the recent decades with the rise of teen culture, and it deserves more attention in the world of translation and education. As a lover of YA fiction and an advocate for language and culture learning, I focused my recent master’s dissertation for my MA Translation Studies degree on researching translations of YA German fiction into English, uncovering the issues that these novels face entering the English-speaking market.

Before the 1950s, there were few literary publications aimed specifically at teenagers, and teen culture was not quite the phenomenon it is now, as most teens had to take on adult responsibilities early on during the war and interwar years, arguably leaving little time for leisure activities or existential quandaries. However, since the publication of what is retrospectively considered one of the earliest YA novels Catcher in the Rye (1951) by American author J.D. Salinger, many YA authors have emerged and captured the trials and tribulations of the teenage years. Across Europe, and especially in Germany, the top 100 bestselling YA fiction lists at popular book retailers are filled with translated titles by English-speaking authors, who capture teen hearts with ever-popular Anglo-American pop culture themes. But how many foreign language YA authors make it to the English-speaking market?

From recent market research that I carried out as part of my dissertation, I found that titles translated into English made up just 2% of the total in the top 100 best-selling YA fiction list at the popular UK book retailer Waterstones—just two books were translations from foreign authors (one of these being a recently published German novel by Karl Olsberg: Boy in a White Room).

In contrast to this, the top 100 best-selling YA fiction list at the German equivalent retailer Thalia revealed 73 out of 100 books to be translations, most of which were from English into German*. It is relatively clear that these statistics point to an Anglo-American dominated YA market in both the UK and Germany, which inevitably leads to limitations in English-speaking teens’ exposure to other cultures at a time when they need it most in terms of developing interests in learning languages and pursuing them as an optional subject of study at school or beyond (e.g. to GCSE or A-Level in England, which was the focus of my study).

This market research proved challenging; it was difficult to collect data on YA translations due to a lack of transparency in recognition of the YA genre and of translations amongst publishers and retailers, as well as translation databases, making it impossible to conclude exactly how many YA fiction translations from German into English currently exist in print. This prompted an even more worrying issue: if a researcher struggles to find these novels, then what chances does a prospective teen reader, who is not necessarily aware of these translations, have in finding them? What we need from publishers is more explicit marketing of the translated YA novels as translations, such as naming the translator on the front cover to give visibility to the practice of translation as well as the translator. To facilitate better access to translated YA novels that are available, we need book retailers to create clearer sections for translated YA fiction in store and online, so that teens (and educators) can actually find them.

Teachers and language learning promoters often struggle with how to get teens interested in learning languages, but I would argue that the way to do this is through relatable learning materials, and here is where YA fiction and translation can help. Introducing secondary school pupils to translated YA fiction in foreign language lessons can help them to better understand the culture and country (or countries) of the language that they are learning. Seeing a foreign country’s culture through the eyes of a teen protagonist, who is dealing with similar issues to the young English-speaking reader, can help teach about diversity and tolerance through understanding different points of view, and most of all, it can help to spark an interest in learning more about that country and its language. What’s more is that introducing translations to teens can help spread awareness of the practice of translation and encourage more young people to take up translation as a career.

Besides the need for more YA translations into English and better access to them, we also need more engagement from the field of translation with the YA genre. There is currently very little academic research into translation of YA fiction, and to my knowledge, no substantial translation theory or methodology for translating this genre. This leads to a mixture of translation approaches and a web of patchy forced foreignizations and unnecessary domestication. We need not only quantity but also quality YA translations that depict the characters and the source language culture accurately. It is the details of culture specific terms and character traits that paint a big picture for the teen reader. If details like character names and foreign street names are domesticated and localised into US or UK English, a barrier is created that stops the reader from accessing the source language culture.

Fiction is more powerful than it is given credit; it can perpetuate stereotypes or break them. Together with translation, YA fiction novels can be a pathway into a diverse and multicultural world for teens to discover, which can ultimately help them navigate through their everyday lives more holistically, and a way for educators to reach teens with relatable learning materials.

* These figures were accurate on 08/07/2021.

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Ewa Kwatek recently graduated from Cardiff University with a First Class (Hons) degree in BA German and a Master’s degree in Translation Studies. She is emerging onto the translation scene as a freelance German and Polish into English translator. Ewa is passionate about spreading awareness of foreign literature in translation and raising awareness of cultures and languages across the globe.

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