Stop pretending all books are written in English
By Pamela Paul
About a decade ago, when I was an editor at The New York Times Book Review, we left the name of the reviewer off a cover review.
The book’s title and author’s name were there (“Bismarck: A Life,” by historian Jonathan Steinberg). But owing to a production error, the name of the high-profile figure who’d written the review — Henry Kissinger — was not.
This was not a conspiracy. We didn’t do it on purpose.
But imagine if we had deliberately left Kissinger’s name off — just decided to downplay his role because we thought the book and its author were more important. That’s what publishers routinely do to book translators: omit from the cover the name of the person who rendered the book into English. According to one database, only 44% of English-language translations of fiction and poetry published in 2021 acknowledged the translator on the front cover.
At a time when the culture as a whole is paying greater attention to which creators get publicly credited, and movie credits are only getting longer, this is a unique form of neglect.
To cite a few high-profile examples, neither “The Perfect Nanny” by Leïla Slimani nor “The Anomaly” by Hervé le Tellier, both recent winners of France’s Prix Goncourt, indicated on the cover that they were originally written in a language other than English. Remember “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” the runaway Nordic bestseller? No translator on the cover. The works of Haruki Murakami? Same deal.
“The idea of collaboration in other media is expected, whereas for whatever almost superstitious reason, in the book world, it’s still considered almost a threat to name anyone other than the author,” Jennifer Croft, a translator and a key player in the effort to translate Ukrainian literature into English, told me.
There’s no good justification for this. Translating literature isn’t a mere technical exercise, subbing one word for another. It isn’t something Google Translate can do. Translation is an art that requires channeling an author’s voice, tone, intention and style. A great translator even has the power to improve upon a work of art, as Gabriel García Márquez often said of his English translator, Gregory Rabassa.
In her new book, “Translating Myself and Others,” novelist and translator Jhumpa Lahiri writes, “I think of writing and translating as two aspects of the same activity, two faces of the same coin, or maybe two strokes, exercising distinct but complementary strengths, that allow me to swim greater distances, and at greater depths.”
And translators often do more than just translate. They advocate for untranslated authors, bringing them to the attention of agents and editors. They act as de facto ambassadors for their authors, helping them navigate the press and social media — none of which, by the way, is compensated for by the publisher but merely a part of what translator Anton Hur has called a “horribly entrenched culture of unpaid labor.”
At a time when America’s understanding of other cultures is of paramount importance, translators are overdue to get credit for what they do. Especially because the justifications for leaving their names off are so misbegotten.
Most of it boils down to money. Publishing is a low-margin business, and paying translators a small fee (typically between 10 and 15 cents a word, far less than authors are paid) helps maintain the bottom line. Translators are also often excluded from royalty agreements, which means that even a financially successful book can have little effect on a translator’s pay. These arrangements are easier to pull off if the translator’s profile remains low.
The greater a book’s commercial prospects, the less likely the translator is to get credit. The fear, for the publisher, is of alienating an American readership that is assumed to be uncomfortable with anything foreign. “In some instances and for some genres, advertising that the book is a translation may not be in the best interest of sales or marketing,” one literary agent told Poets & Writers magazine.
Of course, the same thing was said for decades about authors with “ethnic” names — that they were a commercial liability. American readers seem to have gotten over that bias. But even if they hadn’t, it would be unimaginable to leave an author’s African or Asian name off the cover for “marketing” purposes. It’s also disrespectful to an author who is most likely proud of writing in her own language, as part of her country’s own literary tradition, to falsely create the impression she has written in a foreign tongue.
The rest of the culture doesn’t operate this way. American audiences have shown themselves to be enthusiastic consumers of screen programming from abroad. Why should the literary world lag behind the streaming world of “Money Heist” and “Squid Game”? Americans appreciate K-pop in its original Korean. Just as Hollywood abandoned dubbing foreign films over a decade ago, using subtitles instead to allow Americans to hear a wider range of voices, so too can book publishers decide to let readers know who’s translating the books they read.
Croft, the translator of Ukrainian literature, announced in the summer that she would no longer translate works if her name didn’t appear on the cover — as it didn’t with her translation of the 2018 novel “Flights,” by Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk. She and novelist Mark Haddon posted an open letter online, calling on publishers to name translators on book covers. The letter has attracted more than 2,600 signatories, including Neil Gaiman, Bernardine Evaristo and Alexander Chee.
And last month, the chair of the International Booker Prize, which honors books in translation, called on publishers to include translators in royalty agreements. (The Booker splits its roughly $63,000 award evenly between author and translator.)
In accepting the 2022 award for the International Booker Prize on Thursday — the first time the prize has been awarded to a book written in Hindi — Geetanjali Shree, author of the novel “Tomb of Sand,” said of her English translator, Daisy Rockwell, “Where would any of us be without Daisy, who has given this book its English incarnation, making it accessible for all of you?”
Recognizing translators isn’t a minor literary matter. It’s about bringing the book world in line with the rest of the arts. It’s about reckoning with the fact that many parts of the planet don’t speak our language and that translators help bring those parts to us. It’s about encouraging English speakers to acknowledge and embrace a global culture.
Translators and readers alike deserve the credit.