It’s strange that the literature of a language that rubs up against so many others should be as wary of translation as English is. For English speakers, there seems to be an expectation that the entire world should be instantly legible, and if it isn’t, that it be brought in seamlessly and domesticated. An intimate aspect of empire is the reassurance that you can travel almost anywhere and assume you’ll be able to order in your own language; monocultural English speakers are rarely made to experience the childlike vulnerability of fumbling through a new grammar.
That has led to a gold standard for translations into English where the translator and her work are invisible on the page. There is a dictum that a translation should read as though it was originally written in English: concise, declarative sentences, non-English words avoided or marked as foreign through italics, culturally specific references shifted or explained to avoid any confusion — the latter a tendency revealed in the Squid Game brouhaha, when some Korean-speaking viewers accused the show’s subtitle writers of changing the dialogue so much that, as one person tweeted, “if you don’t understand Korean you didn’t really watch the same show.” The art of subtitling is distinct from book translation, not least for its specific demands on rhythm and brevity, but it serves as a reminder that translation is inherently political. Much of the world thinks of it that way, notes writer and translator Madhu H. Kaza in the foreword to her groundbreaking 2017 anthology Kitchen Table Translation. Translation in an Anglophone context, however, has emphasized “an artfully inconspicuous technique.”
Which is perhaps why, when you’re reading a translation into English, you probably don’t fully know whose book you’re reading: Translators’ bylines are almost never on the cover of the books they translate. And unless you have a vested interest in the industry, you’re unlikely to scrutinize the colophon. You might not even register that a translated book is a translation at all, and it would seem that some publishers prefer it that way. In a recent Guardian op-ed, the translator and author Jennifer Croft pointed out that not one of the past five years’ winners of the International Booker Prize — one of the most prestigious prizes for work translated into English — credits the translator on the front cover of the book. The U.K. cover of the 2021 winner, David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, out with Pushkin Press, finds room for three blurbs but no room for the name of the person who translated it from French, Anna Moschovakis.
For decades, translators in the U.S. have been underpaid and largely ignored, working in the back rooms of literature even as they play a central role in enriching Anglophone letters. Part of that may be starting to shift — translators are beating the drum for their own visibility.
As the grande dame of Portuguese and Spanish translation, Margaret Jull Costa, has said, without the author, there is no translator. When I work on a novel or a short story in my role as a translator from Swedish into English, I don’t make up the plot, the characters, the tension. Still, the non-Swedish-speaking reader can only experience those elements through the words I choose, in a kind of collaboration across time — between the author’s mind and mine. Other collaborators, like the book’s editor and designer, may be as invisible as the translator. But those jobs also tend to be compensated in a way that the translator is not. There is no official minimum rate in the United States, though anecdotally, fees vary from as low as $0.02/word to around $0.15/word, and, occasionally, more than that. It might mean being paid $5,000 for a 200-page novel — a task that requires perhaps three months of work depending on style and content, plus weeks of edits, and I have heard of colleagues receiving far less than that. (In the U.K., the Society of Authors has observed that a common starting rate is £95 per 1,000 words.) Since a 1990s price-fixing investigation of the professional association for technical translators, even literary translators have been discouraged from discussing rates standards.
Printing the translator’s name on a book cover won’t automatically lead to decent pay — every working artist knows that exposure does not pay the bills, and some translators are suspicious that demands for prominent credit are a red herring. Still, when an entire profession is routinely disregarded, visibility can only help. In 2013, a group of English-language translators launched a campaign to #namethetranslator, aimed at the media and publishers alike, to protest how rarely translators were named in reviews and marketing materials. Using the hashtag, translators and their fans go after critics and publishers who fail to heed its call, sometimes in digital pile-ons.
It’s difficult to directly measure the campaign’s success. But it is clear that things have shifted: In 2016, the International Booker Prize announced that it would now focus on translations only and split the prize sum equally between author and translator. This year, on September 30, International Translation Day, Croft and author Mark Haddon started a new campaign building on the previous one: They published an open letter and petition signed by hundreds of authors declaring their wish to put their #translatorsonthecover — this time demanding that English-language publishers include the translator’s name alongside the author’s. To date, Croft and Haddon’s petition has attracted more than 2,500 signatures, and the behemoth Pan Macmillan announced that it will start crediting translators on book covers. Then again, as Deborah Smith, founder of indie translation press Tilted Axis, has noted, Pan Macmillan is notorious for withholding copyright from translators. Will that change, too?
These conversations are happening in a publishing market that’s relatively unfriendly to the concept of translation itself, with only 3 percent of all books published annually in the U.S. being translations. (Compare this to, say, Sweden, where the number is roughly 30 percent, largely from other Scandinavian languages or English.) Translation is not some inherently moral good, as Sally Rooney recognized when she declined to have her novel Beautiful World, Where Are You translated for an Israeli publishing house that, in her words, “does not publicly distance itself from apartheid.” As with any art form, literature exists in complex ecosystems of money and power, and exchange can be plenty brutal.
It’s possible that publishers believe readers will be scared off if they know that a book is a translation. (Although many smaller publishers, like Coffee House Press, Two Lines Press, and Feminist Press, have already made a habit of putting translators’ names on their covers.) It raises the question of whom we are translating for and why we read. Most of the world’s people already live in and between multiple languages, including in majority Anglophone societies. Languages and cultures are permeable, and anyone who insists that English is set apart from the rest is laboring outside of history, eyes averted from complexity.
There’s a thrill in reading something that unsettles what you thought you knew. A thrill in seeing yourself in a story that’s rarely told and refuses to overexplain its own specificities for an imagined monocultural audience. Stumbling over a word you don’t recognize as part of your English vocabulary, you may remember that not knowing provides its own kind of excitement. In Kitchen Table Translation, Kaza proposes viewing translation as an act of hospitality, which “recognizes both the dignity and difference of the other” and which “acknowledges that the host, too, will have to be changed by the encounter.” There is no equivalence, and no story is unmediated. Translation makes both those truths visible. Beyond credit where credit is due, acknowledging the translator points at the cracks in the apparently smooth surface of how a story is told. Isn’t that where it gets even more interesting?