Criteria for the translation of Afrikaans fiction: the perspective of a publisher

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Publishers are responsible for adding value to manuscripts and packaging these books in the right format, at the right time, at the right selling price, and making them available to specific target markets. Publishers have both social objectives and business objectives. Whereas publishers aim to inspire, influence, educate and provide readers with quality content in the form of either hard copy or digital copies, they are also businesses and therefore need to ensure sustainability through market extension and growth. Minority language publishers publish books for specific language markets that not only fulfil their language needs, but also resonate with their cultural identity. Although minority language publishers are addressing their social objective via minority publishing, the market for these language groups are rarely desirable in terms of market size. Afrikaans is regarded as a minority language in terms of per capita speakers, with only a total number of 12,2% Afrikaans home language speakers. Competition between local Afrikaans publishers is also high as a consequence, especially considering monopolies active in the country. With regard to Afrikaans publishing specifically, a unique set of additional challenges exists. In South Africa a total of 8,1% people speak English as a home language, while the rest of the population may also speak English as a second or third language (Statista 2018). The rest of the population is divided between indigenous African languages. It is also reported that South Africa does not have a strong book buying and reading culture due to specific historical and political factors which affect a large part of the indigenous language-speaking population, and consequently the book reading market (Le Roux, Tshuma and Harvett 2023; National Book Reading Barometer South Africa 2023). Currently trade books are published mainly in English and Afrikaans for an elite few who fall within the higher living standards demographic with discretionary income that enables them to afford luxury goods like books.

Considering these statistics and challenges, it is argued that in order to expand the market for Afrikaans trade books, a buying market outside of a country’s borders needs to be explored. It is suggested that not only translation rights, but also other subsidiary rights to these books need to be sold to a specific country that has similar needs in terms of cultural consumption. Subsidiary rights are any rights that are not included in the head contract between the author and the publisher (primary rights), like audio book rights, merchandising rights, etc., and may be exploited by the publisher, literary agent or author, depending on who owns the subsidiary rights (Owen 2014). Because Afrikaans has developed from various European languages, one being Dutch, and adding Dutch colonialism to South Africa and the development/history of the Afrikaans language, cultural ties and business relationships with both the Netherlands and Belgium are obvious.

However, the power imbalances between First World and Third World countries are also an important factor when the flow of information and products between countries is considered. It is argued that countries with a higher status will occupy a more central and powerful position on the global polysystem, whereas a Third World country like South Africa, which lacks resources and status, occupies a peripheral position on the global polysystem. This is also where the polysystem theory regarding power imbalances of not only the statuses of countries, but also languages, applies, where languages can be regarded as peripheral, semi-central or central (Even-Zohar 1979; Casanova 2010; Van Es and Heilbron 2015). It is argued that within the global polysystem of languages, a “continuous state of tension between the centre and the periphery [exists], in which different literary genres [or a country’s cultural capital] all vie for domination of the centre” (Khalid and Baker 1998:177). Various languages compete for the central position that the “hyper central” language English occupies. Sources argue that translating books into a more central language could influence the source language’s movement and position in the global polysystem (Casanova 2013).

Acknowledging the background and context of Afrikaans, and the challenges of minority language publishing, this article poses the question as to what criteria an Afrikaans book should fulfil to be considered for translation by an international publisher in order ultimately to increase readership, market reach and status on the global literary system. This article stems from a master’s study conducted in 2018, “Selling translation rights in trade publishing: case studies of Dutch translations of Afrikaans fiction in the Netherlands and Belgium” (Buitendach-Miller 2018), which also covers political, economic, social and technological factors influencing the publication of trade books in Afrikaans. This article focuses on the specific criteria.

This study is qualitative and exploratory and uses both primary and secondary research methods. The polysystem theory is used as a theoretical framework, and a comprehensive literature review was constructed. Furthermore, semi-structured interviews with translators, a literary agent and international (Dutch and Flemish) and local publishers were conducted. Two case studies of the translated Afrikaans authors Deon Meyer and Irma Joubert were also used to formulate the list of criteria for Afrikaans books to be considered for translation. Both these authors publish originally in Afrikaans and are considered bestsellers in their home country and internationally.

A generic list of criteria was formulated based on the results of the research conducted. The list is not conclusive, and all books do not necessarily fulfil all the criteria. It is evident that personal relationships with international role players in the publishing industry, and an author’s oeuvre and profile, unique selling proposition and seasonality/timing of the book are important considerations. Previous translations, sales record and positioning strategy are also included in the list of criteria. Lastly, research proves that even debut authors are considered for translations, based on controversiality of themes, unique writing style or awards received. A team consisting of a knowledgeable publisher, quality author and literary agent (in some instances) are crucial to success.

This article therefore discusses the proposed criteria and emphasises that the list may be used as a guideline where translations of minority titles are considered. This article also offers a publishing perspective, where business objectives are considered. It is, however, still important that publishers use their own discretion, as they know their markets best. A country’s specific political, economic, social, cultural and technological context should also be considered in conjunction with the proposed list of criteria.

Keywords: Afrikaans fiction; trade publishing; Dutch literature; polysystem theory; translation rights


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Kriteria vir die vertaling van Afrikaanse fiksie: ’n uitgewersperspektief

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