Dear Oscar Committee:
While I have to agree that The Barbarian Invasions was fully deserving of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2004, how dare you constantly refer to Denys Arcand as the award winner! Does he speak Oscar-winning English? Did he even write the screenplay in English? I think not! Where would we be without a translator in all of this?
Dear Ad Committee:
Yes, the Red Bull ads are great and certainly deserve all the prizes you bestow on them—but perhaps they should be given another prize because the characters all seem to be polyglots! Not a mention of the translator. Where would Red Bull be without their translators? Winning awards in Austria, that’s where!
Dear Local Newspaper:
Last Wednesday, you erroneously reported that the plaintiff, a recently arrived immigrant from Slovakia, explained the circumstances of the complaint to the judge. I think not! I think you’ll find you meant to say, the court interpreter told the judge exactly what happened and that the plaintiff would have been lost without her!
So none of the above are real letters, and they are all more than a little bit ridiculous. Why, then, do literary translators insist on writing to the media, berating them for failing to acknowledge the role translators played in bringing novels to their attention?
Most literary translators seem to assume it is a God-given right to have their name on the front cover of their latest translation. As it happens, “Translated by Peter McCambridge” features prominently on the cover of I Hate Hockey, in text roughly half the size of the author’s name, François Barcelo. I am obviously happy to have my name next to my work, but the novel I told you about last week, Jessie on my mind, didn’t feature the name of translator Casey Roberts on the cover. Casey won an award for his translation and I haven’t (yet—fingers crossed, though!). Who do you think is the happier?
Should every movie poster for Amélie say “Starring Audrey Tautou—subtitled by God Knows Who”? After all, without our brave translator, how would we know what Amélie was saying?
Should every box of cereals say “Translated by Who Really Cares” somewhere between the name and the list of ingredients? After all, without our translator, how would we know what we were eating?
Should every press release say “Written by Overworked and Underpaid. Quotes attributed to company president also created by O. and U.”?
Should every house we walk into say “Wired by Ima Electrician”? Every bathroom have Your Friendly Neighbourhood Plumber’s name on the wall?
What makes literary translators so special? In our day jobs, precious few of us—Chris Durban aside—have an urge to put our names anywhere near the texts we’re churning out for much more money. Maybe that would imply accountability. But as soon as the creativity stakes rise, we suddenly want a piece of the limelight, be it on the front cover of our translation or in the latest review in the biggest newspaper.
Do you know what? That’s fair enough. We are (partly) responsible for letting mums and dads and kids around the English-speaking world enjoy fiction written in other languages that they would not otherwise have access to. But if we didn’t do it personally, then some other translator would come along and do it instead. And—gasp!—they might even make a better job of it.
My point is that until we’re household names like Denys Arcand and Audrey Tautou, then our names don’t deserve to be in the limelight. We work away in the background. We provide a service. Yes, we are creative. Yes, we usually make a good fist of it. Yes, a little more recognition would be nice from time to time when we do a particularly good job, but we are (most of us, at any rate) replaceable.
There is no photo credit on the front cover of I Hate Hockey (the photo takes up at least 90% of the cover). The publisher’s logo doesn’t even feature, for God’s sake. Space is limited. I’m happy to have my name there at all.
If you want to change this, fair enough. If you want every translator’s name to systematically feature prominently on every translation (literary or otherwise), then go for it. But my point is why should we stop there? What makes us more deserving than other people whose work always goes uncredited?
And, if you ask me, the best way to achieve this is not by berating poor book reviewers. Did they assume Kafka wrote everything in English? Of course not. Are they blindly relying on his translator (unless they happen to be particularly good at German)? Of course they are. How are they expected to know where the translator adds to the text and takes away from it? Do you want a comparative examination of every translation that passes a book reviewer’s desk?
Please. Reviewing literary translations seems to be particularly difficult (and thankless). How well placed is the reviewer to gush about how every subtlety is rendered into flawless, idiomatic English? How well placed is the reviewer to nitpick every time the translator happens to put something differently to how he or she might have put it?
Like referees in any sport, I would argue, literary translators are most effective when we don’t even notice them. They are just there, doing their job.