“Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films,” South Korean film director Bong Joon-ho told the 2020 Oscars crowd, as his film Parasite smashed boundaries by becoming the first foreign-language film to win the Academy Award for best picture.

Never a truer word was spoke. There is, literally, a whole world out there that remains closed to us if we refuse to engage with subtitles – or any other kind of translation. It is dazzling and wondrous, and all that stands between us and it is that one inch of effort, less if we are reading a good translation of a book.

I shall never forget taking out The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir from East Kilbride library as a young teenager. Yowzah! Affairs. Smoked-filled cafés on the Left Bank. Existential chat. More affairs. This was the business.

Don’t get me wrong. We had our moments in East Kilbride. But Simone took me to places I had not been before. Or, as my schoolgirl French was not yet up to reading the original, her translator did.

His name was Leonard M. Friedman, and, in a world without online dictionaries, he turned his superlative English translation of Les Mandarins around pretty sharpish. It came out in 1956, just two years after the original. Today, however, he is forgotten.

For some years, The Mandarins was out of print in English. Out of print! This is an abomination. In 2005, it was reissued by Harper Collins Perennial Classics. I assume they used Friedman’s translation, but I cannot be sure because the new edition doesn’t mention the translator.

The copyright page provides the name of the font in which the book is printed – Sabon – but declines to name the person who wrote it, as in wrote the actual words that the English reader will digest. It simply says, “English translation copyright @ Collins, 1957”.

This erasure of the translator is symptomatic of a troglodyte mindset that pertains primarily in the English-speaking world. Not only do we not prize translated literature – under 5% of literary publications in the UK are translations – we do not prize translators.

This takes many forms, but the most compelling is money. Recently, I turned down an offer from a large, reputable publisher to translate a long work from German into English. I very much wanted to do the work, but it was effectively going to pay me £1 per 1,000 words, with the vague possibility of a pittance in royalties at some point far in the future. You’d get more than that for typing 1,000 words, and so I simply couldn’t take it on.

Perhaps this lack of respect for the translator’s skill arises because it is the translator’s job to disappear. The late Anthea Bell, who worked from French and German into English and counted translations of Asterix, Sigmund Freud and W.G. Sebald among her many triumphs, believed that translators are in the business of spinning an illusion: “The illusion is that the reader is reading not a translation but the real thing,” she told a conference in 2004.

That hard-won illusion can sometimes make a writer’s reputation. The novelist Will Self argues that Bell’s magnificent translations helped enhance Sebald’s standing in the English-speaking world.

Six years ago, I completed a new translation of Erziehung vor Verdun by Arnold Zweig, which Freight Books published as Outside Verdun. The book is an anti-war classic of the First World War. It is just as good as, if not better than, Eric Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front but had sunk into obscurity in the West. (It was and remains a celebrated work in the Eastern Europe.)

This was partly because Zweig, a German Jew who emigrated to Palestine during the Second World War and settled in East Germany after the war, was on the wrong side of two divides. But it was also because the original English translation, published in 1936 and now long out of print, captured none of the humour and nuance of Zweig’s writing – though, unlike me, the translator was very good on military detail, as I discovered when working on the new version.

Being as free as possible, I tried to produce an invigorating new English version of Zweig’s work that achieved Bell’s illusion. I peppered the prose with Scottishisms, Americanisms and urban slang to do so. Then Freight Books went spectacularly bust in 2017, consigning poor Arnold, to whom I felt a huge responsibility, and who really is a wonderful writer, to English-language obscurity once more.

Nowadays, translators must also navigate the menace of artificial intelligence. For my sins, I sometimes pep up machine translations for a bank in Germany. This work is not always fascinating, but it does pay more than £1 per 1,000 words and it is occasionally enlivened by mistranslations.

“Mr Schmidt (not his real name),” began a recent Q&A on balanced investment funds, “do you like hard suspensions?” To which the only answer is surely, “Why yes, Fräulein Gummistiefel, how did you know? The harder the better.”

Of course, artificial intelligence is improving all the time. Machine translations are far better than they were only a couple of years ago, but I doubt that they will ever be good enough for literary translation. For a good literary translation is really a new work, a kind of co-creation.

Imagine, for example, translating Scottish writer James Kelman into another language. Put that through a machine and weep. Some years ago, while on the creative writing MLitt at Glasgow University, I interviewed one of Kelman’s German translators, Christa Schuenke, for an essay. Wasn’t it awfully difficult to translate Kelman into German, I asked, half expecting her to say, oh no, I’m a pro, it was fine.

“I reached a point where I felt I couldn’t go on,” she told me, still sounding traumatised. “I came to a section where there was a lot of body language and you can’t express body language in German.”

She was able to continue only because Kelman helped her by explaining in detail what he meant in each instance. Now, there’s a writer who wants to communicate. The rest she conveyed through various linguistic gymnastics.

“I used syntactical methods a lot, breaking the language up, running words together,” she told me. “I also brought in a lot of words from German dialects.”

This is the essence of literary translation. It is an artistic interpretation. There is no right answer. In fact, translation is one of the few disciplines where you can be both completely right and hopelessly wrong.

A friend of mine once watched an old Western at a cinema in Paris. In the opening sequence, a cowboy rode into an American Indian encampment. “How,” he said to the chief. “Bonjour,” read the subtitle. “How,” the chief replied. The subtitle? “Enchanté.” Kind of aye, but naw.

Translation is hard but rewarding. In the late 1980s, I worked in China for a year. It was difficult to talk to people because they’d been told to be cagey around foreigners. I had a lot of conversations about the weather. I was starting to go a little crazy. Then I read Frances Wood’s brilliant translation of Dai Houying’s novel Stones in the Wall. Suddenly I understood what the people around me had been through and why they were how they were.

Translation is the best form of travel. It can take you directly into the hearts and minds of people from a completely different culture. No wonder totalitarian regimes hate writers and translators.

Other countries value translation far more than us. At the Leipzig Book Fair, the translation prize is almost as big a deal as the German book prize. It’s too bad we don’t see it that way. For if we fail to cross Bong Joon-ho’s one-inch barrier, we do ourselves a calamitous disservice. It’s a bit like Brexit. We think we’re shutting others out – or just ignoring them – but in fact we’re imprisoning ourselves.