Zoran Živkovic and the plight of non-English authors

“They wanted to call me Donald Livingstone.”

On Friday, the 10th of June, Litteraturhuset hosted a special guest: Zoran Živkovic. Doctor Živkovic is a Serbian author, perhaps best known for his fantasy novels. He originally came to the event to discuss how to construct a universe. But before this began, he gave a very important speech, and I felt the need to write about a grave issue that many multicultural authors face.

“3% of all books in bookstores in America and England are translated works,” Živkovic begins. “Many are shocked to find out that ‘The Little Prince’ and the Bible were translated, and not originally English. Once I saw a bumper sticker that said: ‘If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.'”

Many of us laughed at this, but there was a painful grain of truth in it as well. English books are dominating the market — not only in English-speaking countries, but all over the planet. For English authors, this is great news. But for the rest of the world, clawing your way into those three percent is a life-long battle.

“When I lived in America, my publisher advised me to choose a more ‘American’ pen name,” Živkovic tells us. “But how can you possibly turn ‘Zoran Živkovic’ into an American name? I asked my publisher, and after a long etymological search, he concluded: Donald Livingstone. But I couldn’t change my name to something so different. It just wasn’t me.”

It is absurd to think that Serbian authors who write in Serbian would have to change their names as well when being translated. But the English world just isn’t interested in foreign works. So many authors end up having “non-sellable” names, such as Živkovic. But is this a malevolent move from a xenophobic English world, or are there other factors at play?

“I believe this a Catch-22 situation,” Živkovic says. “The publishing companies claim that they will publish what is marketable, but how can English-speakers know if they like foreign works if they’re never introduced to them? It becomes a vicious cycle.”

Norwegians can easily believe that this doesn’t apply to them. Most of us are at the very least bilingual and read a lot of translated works. But if we look closer, how many of these works are actually “multicultural”? According to Barnebokinstituttet, 60% of books read by Norwegian children were translated works in 2009. And of these translated books, a whopping 70% were translated from English, and 17% from other Nordic languages.1 This means that altogether, children read on average 8% non-English/Nordic authors. Živkovic´s statistics are almost equally grim in Norway.

Even if Norwegians read translated books, this by no means means that we are being multicultural. Perhaps something to think about next time you go to the bookstore?

References:

  1. Barnebokinstituttet