Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

Devil's Advocate

Here's a not-so-popular idea: translators should have the visibility of editors, not authors.

There was a whole uproar on a literary translators forum a while back about an article in the NYTimes, where David Gordon, an mid-range American author wrote about his strange and unexpected success in Japan. Translators were getting their panties all in a twist because said author never once mentioned his translator, who was probably single-handedly responsible for said Japanese success. Some even took him to task on his own blog for it, where he responded quite gracefully:

My translator's name is Aoki Chizuru and I certainly have thanked her, in person, in print and in public, in English and in Japanese, and have also expressed gratitude when receiving the awards for those who even made it possible for me to read the books I loved from Japan and elsewhere. She translated my second book as well and is working on the third. So don't worry!

Either way, it sparked a couple of comments from translators lamenting about the fact that authors and reviewers not only didn't mention their translators in print, but editors were also left out.

Editors are pretty much universally left out. As are publishing houses. And agents. And publicists. And foreign rights directors. All the damn time.

Far from being something to moan and whine about, this is instead just the normal course of business. There are always the players in the limelight, and the dozens of other people behind each one of them that makes everything happen. And it's not just in the book industry, either. How many producers do you know in the music industry, besides Brian Eno and Timbaland? How often are screenwriters publicly thanked and acknowledged for their work, besides the credits at the end of a movie and the Academy Awards (and even then, those awards might not be shown in the main broadcast)? How many times have you wandered through an old European city without knowing the names of any of the artists who sculpted the half-naked marble beauties in the park?

I'm not arguing that translators do unimportant work. Far from it. Translation is some of the most important artistic work out there, if such things can even be ranked on some sort of scale. But how do you compare a translator's importance and artistic merit with the original author? Or with an editor's influence?

And what if, as was mentioned in one of my classes recently, a book reviewer is working with an extremely limited word count -- 500 words, maybe even 300, a mere blurb. Feel free to take such reviewers to task if the translator's name is not mentioned in the metadata listing of the book, but if the translator gets glossed over in such a bite-sized review, it's not such a crime, really.

Related to that, there was a time when PEN's Translation Committee sent strongly-worded letters condemning a reviewer if they neglected to mention the translator in their review. Far from bringing about the expected change, many reviewers bristled quite a bit at such an attack. Their reasoning was that at least they were reviewing any translations in the first place. Which is a fair point.

There's a time and a place to thank everyone involved in a bringing a book to life, and hopefully, everyone all gets their proper due. But normally, the spotlight is fixed entirely on the author and his or her words, no matter how much revising or rewriting or writing their editor actually did throughout the whole process. Why should translators be treated any differently?

Whew. End thought experiment. For now.

(Disclaimer: as you can probably figure out by the title, I'm playing devil's advocate here. I'm not at all convinced by my own argument, but it's an interesting idea.)

(Also, there are plenty of articles out there playing rebuttal to this. See Words Without Borders and Asymptote's blog to start.)