Translators on Book Covers, Reading Habits, and Translation Practice

I’ve been following the latest efforts to advocate for translators’ names to appear on the covers of the books they’ve worked on with great interest. I admire this effort and think that every little bit helps in improving the working conditions of translators. There are other good things about this effort, but that’s not what I want to write about here.

A recent piece by Alice Whitmore at Anyonym (at the Sydney Review of Books) does a very good job of laying out some of the basic arguments and adding some trenchant suggestions about the motivations of translators who have argued for and against such a practice. It is definitely worth reading. As with some of the other recent treatments, there isn’t enough discussion in it (to me at least) regarding the implications of attempting to change the business practices of publishers and, by implication, the reading practices of readers.

With regard to the first issue, books are marketed for the most part on the image of the author, and it’s unclear how adding the image of the translator to the mix might affect this practice. I recall observing an attempt to pitch books as “by the translator of…” a few times; this doesn’t usually work unless the translator is already well-known for something else. It’s a regular feature of poetry, especially old poetry, but not so much of literary translations of contemporary fiction, let alone literary nonfiction. There are a few exceptions, I suppose, and of course this might be changing.

The issue of how readers read is probably even bigger and more difficult to parse. Will reading practices change when translators are more visible on the covers of the books they’ve worked on? As with book marketing on the basis of an author’s image, it’s difficult to imagine this unless the translator’s image has come to seem essential to the reading experience, which means when potential readers not only know that the book has been translated, but recognize and respect the translator in question, such that they might even pick it up because they know it’s that person’s work. I have trouble seeing this happening for most translators any time soon.

But there’s something more central to my concerns about the way this debate has tended to go. The ethos of the translator as a facilitator to the voices of others strikes me as a powerful corrective to the me-centered expressive tendency of

(1) the way we currently teach foreign languages in higher education, where the oral proficiency interview tests “fluency” by emphasizing how one expresses oneself without knowing the words in any given situation;

(2) the way literary analysis is taught, where the emphasis is on an original idea one follows start to finish, where one only ever draws upon the text in question in order to support one’s own ideas and everything else the author wrote is unnecessary; and

(3) the institutionalization of creative writing instruction, where one is encouraged to develop one’s own voice, and if one draws too much on others’ words, it’s considered plagiarism (see also No. 2).

Translation practice, it seems to me, teaches something fundamentally different. It is other-centered in a very healthy way. I suspect that by marginalizing it from the curriculum, we have stopped teaching things that we didn’t in fact know we were teaching, especially a way of interacting with the words of others that is not so focused on waiting until one can start telling people how we disagree with them.

The emphasis on expanding the ethos of the translator such that it becomes closer to that of the author in book marketing strikes me as not a very useful way to approach this issue. It narrows down the discussion to a business question. In the same way, thinking about it from the standpoint of power and privilege eliminates this question of an ethics of action that might not be so closely associated with one’s identity, a choice one makes to serve others and make them look good — I’ve been affected by the “servant leadership” discourse here, as well as the principles of improv: yes, and…; think ensemble; make each other look good.

I’m sure I have a lot of privilege in thinking about this from the standpoint of a secure higher ed position. On the other hand, thinking about it from this standpoint allows me to think without the pressure of salaried dependency. Limitation on the one hand, freedom on the other.

All this makes me feel that the question about whether the translator’s name should go on the cover or not is really missing something fundamentally important about the practice of translation, which is distinctive from the other major writing practices I mention above — expository analytic writing, on the one hand, and “creative” writing, on the other. I wish we could get to this distinctiveness, because it seems to me the most important thing, though I have been thinking about this for so long that I understand it might have skewed my perspective.

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