Never mind the prizes, sell the translations

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The Independent Online
Beryl Bainbridge's novel Every Man for Himself may be the bookies' favourite to win the pounds 21,000 Whitbread Book of the Year Award tomorrow but its whippersnapper rival has already beaten it at another, lucrative game: roaring success abroad.

From Asia to the Middle East and Eastern Europe, readers are devouring John Lanchester's first novel, The Debt to Pleasure. While William Hill gives Lanchester odds of 4-1 to take the Whitbread, his representatives at literary agents AP Watt have sold his tale for translation into 21 languages, including Bulgarian, Chinese, Finnish, German, Hebrew and Italian. It had been bought for what AP Watt calls "very good sums" by 10 countries before the novel even appeared in the UK.

And Bainbridge? The quirky English writer's account of the sinking of the Titanic has been sold to just two countries: Germany and Greece.

The international success of Lanchester's novel, which tells the story of a murderous and food-obsessed English aesthete, has surprised its author: "It never occurred to me that we'd sell any foreign rights at all," he confesses. "I thought there was a kind of linguistic friction in the language that would resist translation." He puts it down to the subject matter: "Food's a hot button with everyone - the notion of the connection between it and violence gets people interested in different ways." And has he read himself in translation? "Luckily my languages aren't good enough - checking over your translations is quite a good way of going mad."

It takes a mixture of luck, sassy foreign-rights agents and a dearth of native literary talent for a British book to do well abroad. British humour does not appear to get lost in translation; the Spanish, for instance, love Stephen Fry's novels The Liar and The Hippopotamus. Even that most difficult of vernaculars, street-Glaswegian, as immortalised by Irvine Welsh, is lapped up by Continental readers. Trainspotting has been a pan-European hit but is a particularly big seller in drug-liberal Holland. Graham Swift's Last Orders, a novel full of South London expressions and references which its author suggested might spell "trouble ahead for translators", was picked up by 17 foreign publishers before it won last year's Booker Prize.

Germany is one of the most lucrative markets for new British fiction; novelists can often sell translation rights there for higher sums than the fee offered by their original publisher. The Debt to Pleasure has proved a fast seller there. Jenny Chapman, foreign-rights director for Jonathan Cape and Chatto, says: "Germany is the biggest potential market and is very attuned to new British fiction that takes risks."

British success has also been fired by the opinion among the country's publishers that Germany lacks a new generation of native literary talent.

Agencies such as AP Watt and David Higham Associates contend that the comparatively conservative Italian and Spanish markets are more difficult to crack, while the French are reported to adore Julian Barnes and Graham Swift whose novel Ever After was given a lukewarm reception in Britain but won a major literary award in France.

Not all recent European successes are current British bestsellers. Some are obscure, forgotten or out of fashion. Ania Corless, foreign rights director at David Higham, has recently sold the translation rights to Anthony Powell's quintessentially English saga A Dance to the Music of Time to a French publisher. Mrs Corless also had great success selling the late Roy Lewis to Europe. "You'll never have heard of him," she says. "His novel was called Why I Ate My Father, then the title was changed to The Evolution Man - it's been an enormous hit in France and Italy over the last couple of years."

Published in Britain in 1960, the satirical novel made little impact, although it has been staged in France and filmed in the Czech Republic.

Mrs Corless argues that surprise at such anomalies is a product of parochial reading habits: "People have different tastes and every country is different - why should one book do the same everywhere? The reason why the English aren't aware of this is because they read too little in translation."