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Why you might struggle to find this year’s International Booker winner in UK libraries – and why publishing suffers as a result

As an expert in German and translation, I was pleased to see Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Kairos win the International Booker Prize 2024, one of the most prominent celebrations of translated literature in the UK. The prize is awarded for a book, and to the people who wrote it: in this case Erpenbeck herself and Michael Hofmann, the distinguished translator who contributed all the words of the English version.

The novel is Erpenbeck’s fourth; Hofmann has created English translations of dozens of books. Kairos tells the story of a love in times of the collapse of the German Democratic Republic, Communist East Germany, and is hailed as a particularly compelling example of what has become Erpenbeck’s hallmark, the intertwining of personal, social and political histories.

Translated literature is famously under-represented on the UK book market, a fact that the International Booker, alongside a number of other fantastically passionate organisations, is trying to remedy.

But there is a lot more that needs to be done as the story of how I first came to find Erpenbeck’s book during my research, and almost didn’t, shows. It’s a tale of institutional and personal successes on the one hand, and a lack of recognition and coordination on the other, which is now being addressed on a new frontline of translator activism.

New Books in German is a collaborative project of embassies and cultural organisations from German-speaking countries. They showcase a jury-selected range of fiction and non-fiction titles, which are backed by a translation funding guarantee should an English-language publisher buy the rights.

Charlotte Ryland, the former head of New Books, explained that Erpenbeck, alongside Japanese-German writer Yoko Tawada, is now so well known that translations of her new books will be commissioned as a matter of course rather than New Books having to make a case for her.

Over the past several weeks I have conducted a study on how book translations from German are marketed by their UK publishers. I have analysed blurbs, review snippets and translator biographies. What struck me was how few of these books I was able to identify.

I had used the British Library’s online catalogue and, because I knew of the fallout of last year’s cyber attack, Oxford’s Solo catalogue as well. With overall book publications in the hundreds of thousands and German being a major language, I thought I should be able to find more than the roughly 100 titles that showed up for 2023 – especially given that I did not limit my search to any genre.

This article is part of our State of the Arts series. These articles tackle the challenges of the arts and heritage industry – and celebrate the wins, too.

The numbers seemed worryingly low, so I sought help from the metadata team at the University of Bristol, where I work, and a former student who has moved to the British Library. Here’s what emerged.

When you use a library catalogue to find a book you interact with a “discovery layer”. That’s what librarians call a search engine. The one that is used by most UK libraries is powered by OCLC, the company behind WorldCat, the world’s largest catalogue aggregator. If you’ve ever tried finding a book that isn’t in your local library, chances are you know them.

OCLC, like Google and any other search engines, decides which bits of data entered elsewhere they think are more or less important to users. In other words, it searches data entered by library cataloguers into the “back end” of a library catalogue.

Cataloguers will enter the title, subject and all kinds of other information, and the search engine will choose, based on your search term, which books it thinks are relevant to your search. Take Kairos. A cataloguer would input the name of the book and the author’s name as well as the name of the translator, plus the fact that it is a translation from German into English. For all these bits, there are individual fields.

So, the data is there. Why, then, did Kairos, like so many other German books in translation, not show up when I searched for them? The reason is that all the fields that are specifically about translation are not prioritised in any of the major discovery layers on the market today.

Those in charge of the world’s major ways of finding books don’t seem to think readers are interested in translations. Translations will only show up in your catalogue search results if someone has also, redundantly, entered “translated from German” or “translation” as part of the title or subject.

Back to Erpenbeck. Her novel did not show up in my results, because no-one has entered the fact that Hofmann’s Kairos is a translation into the catalogue in a way that it would show up when I searched “translated from German” or “translation”.

It seems that Erpenbeck’s is such a success story of literature in translation that the very fact of it being a translation has been eclipsed, at least in libraries. There is a supreme irony here in that the very book that would be the poster child of translation is, for the exact same reason, invisible as such.

Jenny Erpenbeck, author of Kairos.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s writing has become so successful in translation that cataloguers don’t see the value in advertising her books are translated at all. Katharina Behling

Fortunately, the International Booker is redressing that and providing a double remedy in the broader context by showcasing translation, and in the specific context by highlighting this book is in fact a translation. But more than sporadic awards that signal to wider audiences that such books are translations are needed to get translations better represented in the UK market.

That they are translations needs to prioritised in the search engines used by our libraries too. Together with colleagues at Bristol, we are pushing for this change.

Let’s make sure everyone in the library world knows that things can be different, and let’s showcase translation wherever we can. Books like Kairos deserve it.

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