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Books in translation take off in the U.K.; can they do the same in Canada?

Two of the year’s biggest bestsellers thus far have something in common – something that may come as a surprise to those who haven’t really considered it.

At first blush, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, an 800-page tome about income inequality, and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, a multi-volume autobiographical novel, may seem completely different from one another, and in most respects they are. One aspect they do share: neither was originally published in English. Piketty’s book first appeared in France in 2013 as Le Capital au XXIe siècle; Knausgaard’s six-volume opus, which runs to more than 3,000 pages and has so far had the first three volumes appear in English translation, was published in his native Norwegian between 2009 and 2011.

Conventional wisdom has it that books in translation are a tough sell, though this attitude may be changing, thanks to Piketty, Knausgaard, and such best-selling foreign authors as Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, Herman Koch, and Haruki Murakami. According to the Guardian, British readers lined up to get their hands on copies of Murakami’s latest, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. (The queues are testament to Murakami’s international rock-star status, and belie naysayers like Janet Maslin, who wrote in The New York Times that the new novel “is as short on explanations as it is long on overwrought adolescent emotion.”)

The Guardian article indicates that sales for books in translation have been highly robust in Britain lately, surprising publishers and booksellers alike:

In 2012, Hesperus Press, a tiny British firm, sensed potential in a comic Swedish novel that went on to become a European publishing phenomenon after major British and American companies rejected it. Hesperus bought the rights to Jonas Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, which went on to sell more than 500,000 copies.

Chris White, fiction buyer for Waterstones, said that, blockbusters apart, there are “plenty of translated titles we’ve discovered recently which have sold in their thousands.” He singled out The Collini Case, a legal thriller by Ferdinand von Schirach, one of Germany’s top authors, which has sold 29,385 copies – “more than the last John Grisham” – eclipsing some homegrown novels that barely sell a few hundred. “The perception of translations isn’t what it was perhaps 10 years ago,” he said. “They are just treated as great books.”

Here in Canada, the perception that books in translation are “just treated as great books” by English-language readers may hold true for genre stalwarts such as Larsson, Nesbø, and Henning Mankell, though it continues to be an uphill battle for homegrown fiction from Quebec, despite a series of government-funded translation fairs over the past several years. Numerous houses – including Coach House Books, House of Anansi Press, Cormorant Books, Talonbooks, and Biblioasis – have published works by noted Quebecois authors, though none has reached bestseller proportions among readers in English Canada.

Earlier this year, Coach House published an English translation of Guyana by Élise Turcotte, one of the most interesting authors currently working in Quebec, to little fanfare. Last year’s Anansi translation of Louis Hamelin’s FLQ-era thriller October 1970 was longlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize, but failed to catch on with anglophone readers. Even winning the 2010 iteration of Canada Reads didn’t push the English translation of Nicolas Dickner’s novel Nikolski into bestseller territory.

Perhaps the vogue for translated fiction currently washing over the U.K. will be replicated here. This fall, Arsenal Pulp Press will bring out the English edition of Skandalon, French author Julie Maroh’s graphic-novel follow-up to Blue Is the Warmest Color; the new volume is translated by Canada’s own David Homel. One of this country’s best French-to-English translators, Homel recently collaborated with Jacob Homel on a translation of the late Quebec author Nelly Arcand’s novel Hysteric, published earlier this year by Anvil Press. Kim Thúy’s new novel in English translation, Mãn, is out this month from Random House Canada. (Mãn is the follow-up to 2012’s Ru, which did achieve modest success in English after being shortlisted for the Giller and the Amazon.ca First Novel Award.) Thúy’s book is translated by Sheila Fischman, who is also responsible for the English translation of Crossing the City, the latest from the prolific Michel Tremblay, coming in October from Talonbooks.

Canada clearly does not have a paucity of fiction in translation; finding an audience for it is another matter.