Found in Translation: Why reading Isn’t Dead – Yet
In 1949, George Orwell published his iconic dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. It offered us a glimpse of a dark future in which the global elite control society via various surveillance technologies and propaganda.
Since the book was published, many of the technologies imagined by Orwell are now realities including facial recognition, AI-created music and auto-transcription.
Had he lived to see it, Orwell probably wouldn’t have been terribly surprised by the arrival of the internet or by the rise of social media.
A visionary novelist, Orwell may well have predicted that AI and social media would cause the demise of his own profession and he wouldn’t have been alone in that thought.
In a world in which we can stream movies and TV programmes on demand and one in which social media is so dominant, you might expect that the popularity of books would drop off the proverbial cliff.
So, it is somewhat surprising that one social media platform is now powering the popularity of books and that the sale of translated books has risen dramatically.
How does social media drive book sales?
The social media app TikTok has achieved impressive global reach. The short-form video hosting service was launched in 2016 and enabled the downloading of billions of videos worldwide.
Formed in 2020 and inspired by the Covid-19 pandemic, BookTok is a TikTok subcommunity that focusses on books. BookTok is now heavily influencing the publishing industry and is driving book sales.
Members of the BooKtok community discuss and recommend favourite books. Their video posts are inspiring others to read, and to invest in books. New works are being discovered and promoted. Older works are being rediscovered and are gaining new audiences.
Books by little-known writers that may have struggled to sell a few hundred copies have found their ways onto best-seller lists and young people are reading more international and translated books than ever before.
Translations of Japanese fiction are certainly attracting readers. Breast and Eggs, a novel by Mieko Kawakami has become a firm favourite. Indeed, of the translated works published in the UK, those that have been translated from Japanese now account for around 25% of sales. These figures do not include Japanese manga which is also finding many fans in English speaking countries and around the world.
Translated works and the power of visual media
TikTok is clearly a highly visual medium and this is perhaps why it can feel incompatible with the promotion of books. However, there is no doubt that BookTok subcommunity is inspiring its members to read and to explore surprisingly diverse titles including translated literature.
It is thought that translated works have been successfully promoted on BookTok precisely because of the visual nature of the platform. It is often the books boasting visually striking covers that catch people’s eye when scrolling. The distinctive and colourful nature of Japanese graphics, for example, is important in this regard.
It is easy to see that BookTok is now influencing not only reading choices but also the design of book covers. Publishers have realised the importance of BookTok to the success of new titles and are designing covers accordingly. It is said that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover but these days, that’s exactly what potential readers are doing.
It has transpired that personal recommendations by BookTok members are more persuasive than the recommendations delivered by Amazon’s algorithms.
BookTok has driven impressive sales and in particular the sales of YA (young adult) fictional works and romantic novels. But it is interesting to note that the recently introduced BookTok Awards include the Best BookTok Revival award. Shortlists are created for each award and BookTok community members then vote for their favourite nominees.
The shortlist for this year’s BookTok Revival Award includes none other than George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four.
International Booker Prize
The BookTok community has certainly been busy promoting works both new and old including translated books.
But the establishment of the International Booker Prize in 2016 has also proved to be influential in driving sales of translated literature.
The organisers of the International Booker Prize ceremony have recently announced that sales of translated fiction rose by 22% between 2021 and 2022. Japanese thrillers are amongst the works that have garnered huge new audiences and South American horror stories are also proving to be incredibly popular.
It is encouraging to note that translated books are most popular with readers under the age of 35. Fears regarding young people ceasing to read may be unfounded.
Indeed, thanks to BookTok and the International Booker Prize, certain works are becoming must-have cultural accessories.
Winners of the International Booker Prize have benefitted from a great deal of attention and significant increases in sales.
Last Year’s winner was Tomb of Sand by Geetanjali Shree. It was translated into English by Daisy Rockwell. Prior to its nomination for the award, it had achieved sales of just 500 copies. In the nine months after winning the award, the book sold 25,000 copies.
The first winner of the International Booker Prize has faired even better. The Vegetarian by Han Kang was translated into English by Deborah Smith. It is the story of a Korean woman who rejected society’s expectations. A mere 2,000 copies had been sold in Korea in the 10 years since it had been published. Over half a million copies of the English translation have now been sold and sales of the original Korean version have also grown significantly.
Alive and Kicking
It was easy to think that the internet in general, and social media in particular, would kill book sales stone dead and produce a generation who shunned literature.
But it seems that both social media apps and literary awards are inspiring young people to read. Better still, those readers are exploring works that would have remained firmly under their radars had the books not been publicised online. Young people are reading translated books that enable them to discover and understand cultures other than their own.
George Orwell showed us a disturbing future and much of what he predicted has come to pass. But many of the technologies that he characterised as threatening and that are potentially dangerous, have also proved to be forces for good. New tech is driving young people to read, to read incredibly diverse works, and to widen their horizons.
Orwell didn’t predict that!