Tim Parks’ NYR Daily essay “The Translation Paradox” of March 15, 2016 continues his enlightening series of reviews and commentary on the publication of The Complete Works of Primo Levi. As with his other posts on this topic, Parks demonstrates his thorough familiarity with the works of Levi, the world of contemporary literature, and the practice and pedagogy of literary translation, particularly from Italian into English. Nor does he shy away from expressing potentially unpopular opinions or poking holes in the various publicity aspects of big publishing. His readings, moreover, whether in praise or criticism, are not the sort of nit-picky “translation police” swipes (usually based on individual lexical choices) that often precede the most egregious over-generalizations about the essence of translation, the truth of some beloved work or author, or how the latest translation has got it all wrong.
As with any essay that incorporates serious analysis, however, there are moments where he goes too far, nowhere so obviously as in his claims about royalties, on which topic he writes the following:
Some translators’ associations (in Germany for example) insist that a translator ought to be paid a royalty for the translation and share in the commercial success of the work, as if the individual translator had the same impact on the work as the author. This is nonsense. Umberto Eco was better translated by Geoffrey Brock and Richard Dixon than by William Weaver, but The Name of the Rose, which Weaver translated, was an infinitely better book than The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Brock) or Numero Zero (Dixon). Why should the one translator grow rich and the others not? J. K. Rowling, Stieg Larsson, and E. L. James are not difficult authors to translate. Would it really make sense to skew translators’ earnings by giving vast amounts of money to those doing work that is immeasurably easier than, say, Jonathan Galassi’s translations of Montale, or Anne Milano Appel’s 2012 translation of Claudio Magris’s impossibly convoluted novel Blindly? To introduce royalties would be to encourage the finest translators to drop literary work altogether and concentrate on genre novels.
Among the many things amiss here, the beginning of the last line stands out, as it makes it sound as if royalties for translators are something virtually unheard of except among the nonsensical German translators association. This is simply not true. Translators all over the world have long received royalties for their work and not at all because “the individual translator [has] the same impact on the work as the author” but because it is fair and right for translators to share in the success of a work that might actually sell copies. In fact, there are many different ways that translators are compensated for their work, royalties among them. (How much, or rather how little, literary translators tend to make is another question, one that renders the “growing rich” part of Parks’ claim above at least as suspect).
But even more disturbing is the latter half of that final sentence, which implies that translators of literature are only ever motivated by how much they receive in compensation for their work. Why not make the same argument for authors? Since one can apparently do much better by being a successful author of genre fiction than a successful author of literary fiction, the introduction of royalties would be to encourage the finest authors to drop literary work altogether and concentrate on genre novels. This is as strange a claim to make for translators as it is to make for authors, neither of which is so one-dimensional a body as to be purely defined by the bottom line. There are as many different motivations behind the work of the finest translators as there are behind that of the finest authors, and this is a completely separate question from that of fair compensation.
There is much more to say about this particular paragraph (e.g., the rather strange claim that translators who translate “easier” works should not make more for their work than those who translate “harder” ones), but I’m trying to stay within my self-imposed word limit, and I still want to address the crux of the “glory” question that Parks implies throughout the essay. The argument, if I were to restate it in somewhat blunt terms, seems to go something like this: Some translators are celebrated when their work is not as good as that of some other translators, who are not celebrated as they ought to be; this happens because our non-linguistically savvy culture does not know the difference between good and bad translation and because of all the hype and promotion of the contemporary publishing industry.
I think Parks does an excellent job of supporting his own claim here. I would only add that we could probably find plenty of evidence for the truth of a corollary, namely, that some authors are celebrated when their work is not as good as that of some other authors, who are not celebrated as they ought to be, and that this happens because our non-literarily savvy culture does not know the difference between good and bad literature and because of all the hype and promotion of the contemporary publishing industry. Sic transit gloria mundi.