Eliot Weinberger responds:

Written in response to Anonym:

Alice Whitmore’s characterization of my 2000 talk on translation is a misleading confusion of apples and oranges. A little history:

In the early 1980s, the Translation Committee of the PEN American Center led the fight to improve the material well-being of translators. Our demands included royalties for translators (at that time, translators were generally paid flat fees, even for books that became bestsellers); copyright in the name of the translator and not the publisher, with subsequent rights to the translated text; the translator’s name on the cover and in all publicity for the book , and the citation of the translator in reviews (all of which were either rare or non-existent). We produced a “model contract” for translators, and I personally wrote a pamphlet called “The Rights and Responsibilities of Translation.” After a long bureaucratic struggle, we were successful in convincing the Library of Congress to include the translator’s name in what is the primary data base for all books published in the US—which, shockingly, it had never done. Thanks to the committee, many publishers began paying royalties, granting copyright, and giving some prominence to translators, and reviewers devoted at least token sentences to the translator’s work. Obviously there is still much to be done, as is apparent from Jennifer Croft’s letter. 

The birth of translators’ rights also coincided with the rise of “theory” in academia, which in turn led to many conferences and articles and books devoted to “translation theory.” I found most theory useless for actual translation and, in its radical wing, the claims made for translators greatly exaggerated. (For example, at a time when theory was proclaiming “the death of the author,” it was also promoting the idea that the translator is the true author of a translated book.) So my talk over twenty years ago was partially responding to that and—need I say it?—not to the concrete demands by translators. 

This difference between the material and economic realities of translators and the theoretical ideas about them seem to have eluded Whitmore. On the basis of some ironic remarks on the anonymity of translators, she lumps me together with David Hahn and Ravi Ghosh, who specifically have written against having the translator’s name on the cover of books. I have never read their articles, and I do not share this opinion. 

What I find most offensive—and the reason I write now—is Whitmore’s claim that “The fact that Weinberger and Hahn are capable of minimising their own work with such lucidity and authority suggests to me that these are two people who have never had their work minimised for them.” (Her italics.) This is presumably because Hahn and I are white men. (Ghosh, who makes the identical statement as Hahn, is not included.) The next sentence reads: “So it comes as no surprise that it is primarily women translators, queer translators, and translators of colour who are leading this newest iteration of the pro-translator movement.”

This leads Whitmore to cite comments from people of color currently working in publishing houses and LGBQT people in the tech industry—examples which have little to do with translation. The vast majority of translators have always been women, and I would guess that 3/4ths of the male translators I have known have been gay. Obviously there is a case to be made that a marginalized profession is more open to marginalized people. (Regrettably, until very recently, there have been few translators of color—though this is changing.) And there is a chicken or an egg argument about whether translators are underappreciated or exploited because they are primarily women and gay men, or because they are translators. In any event, Whitmore would have a hard time demonstrating that white heterosexual male translators—as translators—have enjoyed privileges denied to others. Demographically, the opposite is true: the translation of most of the high-profile or prestigious books has always been assigned to women or gay men.

In short, I was active in the movement for translators’ rights forty years ago. I unequivocally support the identical movement today. I regret that Whitmore somehow assumes I don’t and, worse, attributes this to the accident of my birth.

Eliot Weinberger

Published February 19, 2022