top of page
  • Writer's pictureMatilde Pozzato

“Lost in Translation”: why young Europeans prefer to read in English

After years of discouraging statistics, Dutch people are finally getting back into reading books. The youth is leading this trend and, at the same time, setting a new one: they mostly read in English.

Walter's Bookshop © Matilde Pozzato

This trend has been observed in the Scandinavian countries for years and more recently it is present in the Netherlands and in Germany, all countries where people are known to speak very good English. However, European countries in general are facing an increased demand for English books and local publishing houses are worried that the market for translated books is dying. 

Infographic © Matilde Pozzato

“Dutch books are a bit struggling right now,” said Hanna (25) who works at Walter’s Bookshop in Groningen “because less and less people read them.” The idea behind the store was to cater to the international students in the city, but she said that they also get a lot of Dutch customers. 

A big role of publishing houses consists of translating books into the local language and creating a personalized cover to then sell in the home country. This process is lucrative both for authors— who get translation deals— and for publishing houses— who get to print and sell more books. 

English original versions are often the so-called export copies, which are cheaper and available as soon as the book is published. Translated versions are usually printed as hardcovers, which are more expensive because of the bookbinding quality and the money spent on the translation itself. This English reading euphoria is financially hitting publishing houses, who risk losing an entire market, the one of translated books. 

Walter's Bookshop © Matilde Pozzato

In 2022, one in five books in The Netherlands was sold in a foreign language, causing the Dutch book market to shrink by 1%. Data shows that this was caused by an increased demand for English books.

This trend is spreading, with young people all around preferring to read in English. 

“The bookstores are jumping on this market of people who like to read English books,” said Hanna. She thinks that because English versions are more readily available, people who aren’t necessarily looking for them end up buying the original copy anyway.

Infographic © Matilde Pozzato

RIP book translation?

“Sometimes the meaning is lost in the Dutch translation,” said Sanne, who works at the Van Der Velde bookstore in Groningen “but that happens in all translations I suppose.”

Many young readers make it a point to read in their native tongue when it’s the original language of the book.

“That’s like a moral thing: if it was written in Italian in the first place, I’d never read the English translation,” said Giulia (23), a journalism master’s graduate originally from Italy.

While young people are hell-bent on reading in the original language when possible, if the book is written in a language they don’t speak, they consider different factors. 

“The English translation just sounded odd,” said Giulia about reading an English passage from a Gabriel García Márquez’s book that she had previously read in Italian. She said that if the book were in Spanish, for example, she would go for the Italian translation because it’s closer to the original language.

Van der Velde bookstore © Matilde Pozzato

Another important factor that readers take into account is book covers. If a book is translated into both English and Dutch, Sanne said that she would pick the one that looks prettier.

“It depends on what the book physically looks like,” said Hannah, because Dutch books are bigger and more expensive and she prefers books that are smaller and easier to hold. Her first choice for a book translated from a language she doesn’t speak would be Dutch but if she doesn’t like the way it looks, she will go for the English translation. The design of English books is often prettier, more colorful, and expressive and they grab her attention more.

Did TikTok kill book translation?

“As a teen, the places where I got recommendations for books were English media, like YouTube videos or blogs,” said Maruca (22), an international law master’s student originally from Romania. “Sometimes there was a delay in translation and it [the English version] was just more available.”

Translations take a long time and some people want to read the book immediately. Especially when it comes to long-awaited books hyped on social media, fans don’t want to stay out of the loop until translated versions are ready.

TikTok is one of the most used apps among young people to talk about books. Very popular on the platform is the BookTok format, a sort of virtual book club where users and creators recommend and review books of all kinds. 

Recommendations go from forbidden love stories in the Trojan War like in The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller to fantasy narratives about immortality in The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab to Pulitzer awards winners pieces like The Goldfinch by Donna Tart.

On TikTok, reading is not just a hobby but a whole aesthetic and readers care about how their books look like and whether or not they will match in their bookshelves. Original English covers are often prettier than translated versions and they match what users see online. 

Van der Velde bookstore © Matilde Pozzato

This new TikTok trend is playing a huge role in pushing young people back to the bookstore.

“More and more people are more fluent in English because of globalization and because so much media is in English,” said Hannah. On BookTok, people mostly make and interact with English content, regardless of their native language.

To encourage customers to buy translated versions, European publishers have started publishing books with the English titles and covers while the inside of the book is actually in the local language.

Still, bookstores now market entire sections with banners like “TikTok made me buy it” or “from TikTok sensation [name]” and books on these shelves are almost always in English, following market demand.

Can you lose your native language?

“I’m just not connected to the language anymore,” said Maruca, who now speaks, studies, and works in English every day. Romanian now feels clunky to her and it takes her a while to get into it when reading.

Student advisor in Utrecht Rienk Wielenga (77) had previously told The Groninger how his Dutch students only read English novels. “I try to explain that we have a beautiful language,” said Rienk. When he reads Dutch poetry to his students, then they say “Oh, wow, that’s beautiful.” He explained how it is important for Dutch people to read books in their native tongue to remain attached to the language, practice it, and don’t forget it.

Van der Velde © Matilde Pozzato

Reading books in foreign languages is a good way to learn, and young people are encouraged by teachers and peers to do so. Especially in Northern European countries where original products (like movies or TV shows) are hardly ever dubbed, it seems logical that young people lean towards English books as well. However, when people speak English all day and then mostly consume English content in their free time, there is concern that national languages are being forsaken.

“English authors aren’t everything,” said Maruca. We are bombarded by English— especially US— cultural products but there is more to books, music, and TV to discover. She is now making a conscious effort to expand her bookshelves beyond UK and US authors, reading work translated from other languages as well.

Vand der Velde bookstore © Matilde Pozzato

“They’re automatically translated through a computer,” said Maruca about books translated into Romanian, which causes the final work to feel unnatural and not flow well, so she picks English translations of foreign books over Romanian ones.

Translating books is an art, where the final product is a text that sounds like the author intended it. This process allows people from all around the world to enjoy books that they wouldn’t have a chance to discover otherwise. While translations from English into other languages seem to be going through a rough patch, translations from other languages into English are still very much needed. 

Check out the following video on how Elena Ferrante’s originally Italian work became more popular in its English version thanks to an exceptional translation by Ann Goldstein! 

12 views0 comments


bottom of page