The ColophonTranslation

(How) should translators be recognized and compensated for their work?

In his brief, satirical work “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges tells the story of the eponymous writer, whose signal achievement is attempting a modern recapitulation of the prototypical novel Don Quixote.

He did not want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original; he did not propose to copy it. His admirable intention was to produce a few pages which would coincide – word for word and line for line – with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

The story is on one level an extended joke – the narrator avers that Menard’s version of the Quixote, while “verbally identical” to the original, is also “almost infinitely richer.” But on a deeper level, the story is a parable about the practice of literary translation, of the perils and pitfalls a translator must navigate to create a text that is both faithful to the original and relevant to a readership that may be entirely innocent of the context and culture in which that original was composed.

This is by no means an idle concern; the practice of literary translation is both a skill and an art unto itself; the work of presenting a text in a language and to an audience that was not privy to its original conception – and therefore, in one respect, never the intended audience the original author had in mind – is delicate and painstaking. The great translators – one thinks of Margaret Jull Costa, translator of Spanish and Portuguese writing; Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, translators from the Japanese; or Sheila Fischman, Canada’s preeminent French-to-English translator – are artists with a close understanding of how and when to abandon a literal one-to-one reproduction of the source text in favour of a more flavoured or nuanced English presentation.

Frank Wynne, the chair of the 2022 International Booker Prize jury, says that the idea of translators taking a text and recasting it in another language sounds “disarmingly simple,” though in truth it is anything but. “In fact you need to pay attention, not just to the meaning of words, but to how they fit together. What the cadence or the rhythm of the sentence is, what the humour or irony in a sentence is, what cultural connotations it might have,” Wynne says. “Mostly it requires you to listen very intently to the voice that you can hear in the text and recreate that voice in your own language.”

Surely this requires some kind of recognition on the part of publishers and readers for the contribution translators make in bringing foreign texts to an English-language readership? Some form of monetary remuneration after publication or, at the very least, their names on the covers of the books they translate?

Surprisingly, there are those in the publishing industry who feel even this last is a bridge too far. Richard Charkin, a British publishing executive who has held positions at Oxford University Press and Macmillan Publishers Limited, argues that including translators’ names on the covers of English-language translations decreases the potential readership for those volumes. “Translators maintain that carrying their name on the cover of a book enhances sales,” Charkin writes on Publishing Perspectives. “Every publisher I know (and I include myself) thinks this is nonsense. Nobody I know has ever bought a book because it’s a translation but there are people who are less likely to buy a book if they think it is a translation.”

This is a well-known problem, not just in the book industry. It has become de rigueur for film studios promoting foreign films to edit trailers to eliminate dialogue that would require subtitles, on the assumption that viewers otherwise adverse to “reading a movie” need to be tricked into buying a ticket for a foreign-language film.

Similarly, publishers have begun assiduously removing translators’ names from the covers of books, relegating credits to the back cover, the title page, or the copyright page. Not just behemoths like Penguin Random House are guilty of this subterfuge; even such unlikely places as the Feminist Press, publisher of Virginie Despentes’s polemic King Kong Theory (translated into English by Stéphanie Benson) and the left-wing press Verso, which published Izumi Suzuki’s short fiction collection Terminal Boredom in English, leave off the translators’ names from the covers.

In the case of Suzuki’s text, a reasonable argument could be made that given the fact that no fewer than six different translators – Polly Barton, Sam Bett, David Boyd, Daniel Joseph, Aiko Masubuchi, and Helen O’Horan – worked on individual stories in the book, there is scant room on the cover to recognize them all.

There is no defence, however, for Vintage Classics’ 2020 translation of Alexandre Dumas’s novel The Count of Monte Cristo, which doesn’t print the translator’s (or translators’) name(s) anywhere on the volume. One might think, absent evidence to the contrary, that Dumas’s 1844 text was an English original.

Some publishers do go out of their way to include translators’ names on the cover; Penguin Random House (the conglomerate of which Vintage Classics is an imprint) recognizes Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky as translators of Russian giants such as Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. But this is a calculated manoeuvre; the husband-and-wife team of Pevear and Volokhonsky are multiple award winners and the closest thing to rock stars in the realm of literary translation.

More impressive is Véhicule Press’s willingness to recognize translator Madeleine Stratford on the cover of Esplanade Books’ 2020 translation of Réjean Ducharme’s 1966 novel L’Avalée des avalés (translated in English as Swallowed). Recognizing Stratford was probably unavoidable; Ducharme’s book is such a dense, difficult – in places arguably untranslatable – text, that Stratford was required to do much in the way of reimagining the original French to make it even somewhat comprehensible to an English readership.

It would seem that giving translators due credit on the covers of books is the bare minimum publishers can do by way of recognition. Where Charkin’s argument is concerned, if the loss of sales is so egregious, why bother signing up a translation in the first place? (This is a question it is possibly dangerous to ask, for fear it results in the response, “You’re right: why are we bothering with this stuff at all?”)

As for financial compensation, Charkin responds that translations don’t make money, and frequently lose money, so demanding a cut of a book’s profits could backfire: the translator might end up owing the publisher money. As for demanding a portion of revenues, Charkin has a rejoinder there as well: “Finally, I find myself asking why translators should be singled out for credit and a royalty share. Could the original editor who shaped the book to make it a success ask for similar respect and reward? Or the jacket designer who came up with such a creative idea that it transformed the book from ho-hum to must-have?”

This of course ignores the fact that in-house editors who commission and shape books for publication are on staff at a publishing house and draw a salary – usually one that puts them in an income bracket far above that of translators, not to mention originating authors, many of whom live at or below the poverty line. As for jacket designers, let’s not even get started on how underappreciated that particular group of industry professionals is.

(And in case anyone was wondering, “Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote,” from the New Directions collection Labyrinths, is translated by James E. Irby, whose name does not appear on the volume’s front cover.)

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