Until the mid 2010s, Georgian literature was almost entirely unknown abroad, but state-funded translation programs and efforts to reach readers through book fairs have helped hundreds of books find foreign audiences.
Expat bookworms living in Georgia are often dismayed to hear that Georgian is a notoriously difficult language to learn, and reading the country’s great works of literature in the original is a pleasure few, even dedicated language nerds can manage. Fortunately Georgian literature is easily available in translation. At least in German.
More than 400 works of Georgian literature written by some 280 authors are available in 35 languages: considerable progress for a body of work that in the 1990s had little to no translations available in foreign languages other than Russian.
Approximately 250 Georgian-language books, including both fiction and non-fiction, have been translated into German, with French and English the runners-up in terms of the quantity of translations from Georgian.
Much of the growth in the number of translations of Georgian works has come as a result of the guest of honor opportunity Georgia enjoyed at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2018, and by Tbilisi being named UNESCO’s World Book Capital for 2021.
It was only in the lead-up to the Frankfurt Book Fair several years back that Georgian literary works began to be noticed in the West: between 1990 and 2004, there was little support for the translation and publication of Georgian-language works. In addition, until fairly recently, there was little to no awareness of Georgian literature (or, for that matter, the country in general, which has only recently stopped having to refer to itself as ‘the other Georgia’).
Until recently, foreign publishers have been disinterested in investing in Georgian literature, says Gvantsa Jobava, the deputy chairwoman of the Georgian Publishers and Booksellers Association, which was founded in 1990.
“We faced problems connected to low awareness about the country when we would go to international book fairs and have meetings with our colleagues. They did not know we had our own language. They thought we wrote in Russian. It was challenging to explain to them why a certain author is worth translating, how important the text is, or what value this text would have for a foreign-language-speaking audience who knew nothing about Georgia and Georgian literature,” Jobava says.
But the situation began to improve starting in 2010, when the Georgian Book and Literature Program was launched with the funding of the Ministry of Culture and Monument Protection of Georgia, aimed at promoting the translation and publication of Georgian literature in foreign languages.
This process was facilitated by an annual forum-dialogue for foreign and Georgian publishers, supporting Georgia’s participation in international book fairs, and the participation of Georgian authors in literary festivals and symposia.
Translation of Georgian literature picked up significantly starting in 2014.
According to Maiko Danelia, Deputy Director and Head of International and Translation Department of the Writers’ House, after the outset of the Georgian Book and Literature Program in 2010, only two applications from foreign publishers were received. This trend continued on for a few years—only three Georgian books were published in foreign languages in 2011, with the number growing to five in 2012 and fourteen in 2013.
The dynamics slightly improved in 2014, when about 30 books were translated. That year, the establishment of the Georgian National Book Center helped increase the number of translations; the main purpose of the Center was to carry out preparatory work for the 2018 Frankfurt Book Fair.
The following year, 47 works of Georgian literature were translated and published in foreign languages, which was the highest figure in 2011-2015. In 2016, Georgian literature was included in 37 foreign translations; and in 2017, a total of 41 books were translated.
With the financial support of the Georgian National Book Center, foreign publishers translated a total of more than 160 Georgian-language works into both European and Asian languages in 2014-2017, including Georgian hagiographic texts, Georgian literature of the Middle Ages, authors of the 19th and 20th centuries, and contemporary Georgian authors of the 21st century working in various genres.
In 2018, the number of translations reached 124, with the majority being translated into German. Both the state’s active involvement in co-financing programs and the increase in the budget of the Georgian National Book Center helped the Georgian literary world reach this number. In 2018, nearly 10 million GEL was allocated to such projects.
Since the Frankfurt Book Fair
The Frankfurt Book Fair in 2018, at which Georgia was a guest of honor, did much to alter the perception of Georgia and its literature on the market. In fact, before the Frankfurt Book Fair, Georgian publishers did not put much work in attempting to sell Georgian literature in foreign languages.
“This fair aroused interest in the country, which later led to an interest in its literature. Our presence at the fair meant not only appearing on the German market but also being at the epicenter of the whole world,” Jobava comments, adding that “the involvement of the state and the increase of funding for translations has helped us a lot. Interest in our literature has increased and, as a result, Georgian literature has been translated into many languages.”
Interest in Georgian literature didn’t peter out after 2018. Even though the pandemic has affected this field greatly, last year about 40 books were funded under the Georgian Literature in Translations program run by the Ministry of Culture. As for 2021, the Writers’ House will fund 20 projects, of which six will be translated into French.
The increase in French translations also has a logical explanation. This time, Georgia is getting ready for the Paris Book Fair.
“In 2024, Georgia will be a guest country at the Paris Book Fair. Although we are still waiting for the signing of an agreement, we have already started working on French translations. Children’s literature has been translated. The works of Mikheil Javakhishvili, Grigol Robakidze and Davit Kldiashvili are underway,” said Maiko Danelia, Deputy Director and Head of the International and Translation Department of the Writers’ House.
Writer Teona Dolenjashvili is one of the modern Georgian authors whose books are often translated into different languages. She spoke to Investor.ge about the importance of literature as a universal language and noted that if translations are not done, Georgian authors will remain locked within the language barrier.
“Of course, it is very important for a writer to have as many readers as possible, and especially for their voice to be heard outside the country. I would like to note that foreign readers give us a very warm reception. They are genuinely interested, even more than Georgian readers. Throughout this process, we promote not only literature, but also the country and tourism,” said Dolenjashvili.
Despite the positive dynamics, Georgian publishers and authors still face some issues regarding translations. While the popularity of the country and Georgian authors has increased since the Frankfurt Book Fair, foreign publishers often find it unprofitable to translate and publish books by unknown authors or less-popular contemporary foreign writers, Dolenjashvili notes. She says that the role of the state is especially important at such times.
“Despite the fact that Germany has opened its door to Georgian authors, we are still facing big challenges. It is very important to maintain the interest of publishers from different countries, and this should be supported by the Ministry of Culture and the state, because a foreign publisher cannot risk its finances for an unknown writer from an unknown country. It is easier to build a connection when there is co-financing. This is the right approach,” Dolenjashvili told Investor.ge.