French should, in theory, be the biggest gateway language in the UK, as it is just about the only one that is still taught in schools all over the country. But I wonder how many UK publishers, without relying on their faithful readers, could actually read and assess a French novel for the British market on the strength of their reading the book in French.
German should be the second gateway language and Spanish third. They both emcompass several countries, so are handy tools, Spanish for Iberia and Latin America, German for Eastern & Central Europe.
And French itself is an excellent tool to find out what is being written in the Maghreb and the rest of the Arabic-speaking world.
So I reckon that if key people at UK publishing houses can read two of French, German, and Spanish, they would greatly expand their vistas on world books.
Eric, you're in the business so maybe you could explain. How do editors find new foreign books to publish? Is it up to the translators maybe to find what would be attractive for the publisher? Even if they know French, German or Russian, there probably aren't many who know more obscure languages and yet books are being published.
I'm not actually in the business, as I'm a literary translator, not an agent or publisher. But as far as I gather, English-speaking publishers, as they have no knowledge of foreign languages, chat to people from France, Germany or other countries, and to the national book promotional agencies. These agencies are sometimes, though certainly not always, just as commercial as the publishing houses, as they want to promote a flow of newly published books, and are not necessarily interested in the promotion a national literature per se. Publishers also have publisher's readers, but these people might also want to do the translation, so are not always objective.
So a British or American publisher will often follow what other European publishers tell them at book fairs.
In my own case, and with a number of small publishing houses, I have suggested books myself. But this is very much a minority situation, as literary translators are usually just hired to do the translation and are expected to do the work and shut up. That is why there is a tension between literary agents and translators, as the latter often know masses more about the source- and target-language cultures.