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There's a figure that crops up again and again whenever the subject of foreign fiction is discussed. It's cited as an indictment of British ignorance, insularity and lack of sophistication. It's three per cent. It's claimed only three per cent or so of fiction published in Britain is in translation, as opposed to about one-third of the titles in Germany. People (especially German publishers and aggrieved German writers) love to refer to that figure, overlooking the fact that German publishers have little choice in the matter, because anything written outside the Reich isn't going to be written in German.

That's also why the Finns, the Dutch, the Greeks and others so boastfully cosmopolitan translate so much: what else can they do, unless they want to ignore the outside world?

Granted, few British publishers can decipher a menu in a foreign language (and even then the menu would have to be in French or German), but they do have a choice of manuscripts from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, the Caribbean, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Singapore etc. That's a lot of manuscripts to choose from, a lot of manuscripts that you can read for yourself without having to take the word of a would-be translator, academic or drinking partner at the Frankfurt Book Fair and a lot of manuscripts that are without the cost of a translator. Also you can be sure the author will have enough English to work the promo circuit if necessary.

(Illustration by Björn Rune Lie)

My guess is the three per cent figure isn't far off the mark, but no one in the business I've quizzed about this has been able to give me a source (though there is a good website in the US that calls itself "Three Per Cent" which evangelises about fiction in translation). So, when I was asked to be a judge for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, I was very much looking forward to the reading on the basis that fierce natural selection would have ensured the admission of the most seductive.

One of the first lessons you learn (or should learn) as a writer or as a literary judge is that there is this thing called taste. Someone may dislike your book or disagree with your judgment because they are ignorant or stupid, but it may be simply that their taste is different. Otherness exists and is highly desirable, because it would be very dull if we had nothing to argue about.

The other important lesson I learned when I was a judge for the Man Booker Prize is that there are hardly any bad books. Truly terrible, execrable, throw the book out of the window or rip it up so no other human might accidentally have the distressing experience of reading it: books like that are exceedingly rare. 

What you do get a lot of is blanks. A nondescript work that you forget before you read it. Someone vaguely intelligent and articulate has made some effort to write something which contains some characters and some events and one or two well-considered adjectives...and someone has published it. In a strange way, these vanilla tomes are more annoying than the bad books, because at least dreadful books have some character or get a rise out of you.

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