On 30 September 2021 – International Translation Day – an open letter from the Society of Authors in London made waves in certain corners of the Twitterverse. The letter, written by Jennifer Croft (International Booker Prize-winning translator of Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights) and Mark Haddon (author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time), called on publishers to acknowledge literary translators on the covers of all translated books. ‘Translators’, the letter states:
are the life-blood of both the literary world and the book trade which sustains it. They should be properly recognised, celebrated and rewarded for this. The first step towards doing this seems an obvious one. From now on we will be asking, in our contracts and communications, that our publishers ensure, whenever our work is translated, that the name of the translator appears on the front cover.
To date, the letter has collected more than 2,500 signatures, many of which belong to high-profile authors (among them Bernardine Evaristo, Valeria Luiselli, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Olga Tokarczuk). Soon after it was published, the letter was heartily endorsed by the Authors Guild – the US counterpart to the Society of Authors. Mary Rasenberger, CEO of the Authors Guild, was careful to point out that including translators’ names on the cover is ‘only the first step’ in a larger project; ‘translators should also receive royalties and a share of subsidiarity rights,’ she urged, and publishers and authors should ‘hire more translators of colour or from diverse backgrounds to better reflect and capture the unique perspectives they bring when translating a manuscript.’
Translation is a curious profession, and one that often and easily finds itself in the middle of important arguments on authorship, ownership, representation, and the merits or miseries of anonymity. While few literary translators are truly ‘anonymous’ these days, many still move like ghosts through the world of publishing, their names omitted not only from the covers of their books but also the reviews and promotional materials that sprout around them. (Anonymous, lest we forget, simply means ‘nameless’.) The reluctance of some publishers, reviewers and booksellers to name and champion translators speaks to a culture that still harbours suspicion for literary translation, or sees it as a ‘problem’ to be either suffered or avoided: a compromise; a hindrance; an annoying expense.
Debates on whether and how to recognise and reward literary translators for their work have existed for centuries, but in the past few decades the conversation has turned to specific changes that could be implemented within the publishing industry to support the work of literary translators. Even within the echo chamber of translation discourse, though, there is little clarity on exactly what form these changes should take, or how universally they should be applied. In a lecture from 2000 titled ‘Anonymous Sources’, for example, Eliot Weinberger (writer, essayist, and translator of Paz and Borges) seems to argue that translators ought to inhabit some undefined realm between anonymity and celebrity. ‘Translators’, he acknowledges, ‘are invisible people. They are often confused with simultaneous interpreters – even at bilingual poetry readings.’ Based on data gathered from ‘a survey of [his] own clippings’, Weinberger makes the claim that 90 per cent of book reviews ‘never mention the translator’s name, even when they are talking about the author’s so-called style’ (a pet peeve of any translator, to be sure). While he recognises and regrets this under-appreciation, he also frames some translators’ efforts to achieve greater visibility as self-important and misguided. He begins with the almost Freudian argument that the translator’s desire to be seen stems from a deep-seated sense of envy, or insecurity. This, he suggests, is why authors are often suspicious of translators: ‘Translators sometimes feel they share in the glory of their famous authors,’ he writes, ‘rather like the hairdressers of Hollywood stars, but authors tend to find them creepy.’ To hammer the point home, he cites Isaac Bashevi Singer, a Nobel laureate and self-translator from Yiddish:
The translator must be a great editor, a psychologist, a judge of human taste; if not, his translation will be a nightmare. But why should a man with such rare qualities become a translator? Why shouldn’t he be a writer himself, or be engaged in a business where diligent work and high intelligence are well paid?
This terrible question, Weinberger claims, ‘hangs over the head of every translator, and of every author thinking about his translator.’ In order to avoid reckoning with their failure as writers or capitalists, Weinberger suggests, many translators turn to academia in an attempt to ‘explain themselves’. Emboldened by theory, some translators even go so far as to ‘claim that they are authors (or something like authors)’ which strikes Weinberger as ‘a Pirandellesque confusion of actor and role’.
Weinberger accurately traces the rise of the pro-translator movement to the 1970s, when Translation Studies began to emerge as a distinct academic discipline. Flanked by other emerging disciplines such as Women’s Studies and Critical Race Theory, Translation Studies was inevitably and inherently political. In this climate, Weinberger writes:
Translators began to come out of their isolation and anonymity to form groups, such as the Translation Committee of the PEN American Centre, where they could share the tales of misfortune of their underpaid, entirely unrecognised, and often exploited occupation. This led to demands, as a group, for thoroughly justified material concessions: the translator’s name prominently featured on the book and in all notices of the book, a share in the author’s royalties and subsidiary rights … and some sort of ‘industry standard’ for translation fees.
This nascent political movement coincided with ‘the rise of so-called theory in the universities,’ which, according to Weinberger, inspired an inordinate amount of ‘sometimes interesting’ but ‘generally unhelpful’ navel-gazing. The cumulative effect of all this over-deep thought and self-aggrandisement was the elevation of the translator to a position dangerously close to that of the author. ‘The translator’, Weinberger remarks, ‘has suddenly become an important person … Small wonder, then, that the advance guard of translators and their explainers are now declaring that the translator is an author’. (More suspicion – could the ‘creepy’ figure of the translator in fact be some murderous sibling, plotting to usurp the king and thieve his royalties?)
Weinberger dismisses the notion that literary translators could (or should) be considered co-authors of the works they translate as ‘presumptuous’ and ‘hubristic’; as an antidote to such poststructuralist nonsense, he advocates a return to the quiet, sensible ways of yesteryear. ‘It may well be time’, he writes, ‘to raise the banner of the translator’s essential and endearing anonymity.’ He proposes that translation be thought of as ‘a trade, like cabinet-making or baking or masonry’; any amateur can do it, although trained professionals are of course preferred, if you can afford them. Most importantly, practitioners should ‘remain largely unknown to the general public, with the exception of a few workers of genius.’ Anonymity, Weinberger insists, doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. In fact, it can be a blessing:
For me, the translator’s anonymity – his role as the Man Without Qualities standing before the scene, a product of the zeitgeist but not a direct maker of it – is the joy of translation. One is operating strictly on the level of language, attempting to invent similar effects, to capture the essential, without the interference of the otherwise all-consuming ego.
In a 2016 column for translation journal Asymptote, British author and translator Daniel Hahn also brings up the translator’s ego, this time in direct reference to the names-on-covers debate. The front cover, Hahn writes, ‘is there to sell a book, not to list credits or massage egos.’ In an interesting reworking of the slippery slope argument, he reasons that ‘it would be a shame to clutter a gorgeous, striking design with more words, my name, the publishers’ name, the designer’s name, the blurb, and other (also legitimately important) bits and pieces’. Hahn’s sentiments are echoed by Ravi Ghosh in a 2020 article for London art magazine Elephant. Ghosh praises the minimalist aesthetic of one prominent UK publisher, framing their design ethos as part of a larger cultural zeal for ‘decluttering’. He writes: ‘a book cover in the Marie Kondo-era should display nothing more than the title and the author’s name – and do so in a beautiful way.’ Minimalist design is not just about ‘Instagram-friendliness’, though; Ghosh also celebrates its ability to restore the status of ‘books as powerful cultural signifiers’. When cleansed of ‘sickly puff quotes’ and other superfluities, he writes, book covers have the potential to transcend the whims and tropes of market-led design and become ‘a unifying artistic symbol in an industry dominated by powerful conglomerates’. He argues that publishers who opt for minimalist design are ‘often favoured by gallery bookshops seeking to champion the creative industries’ minnows’.
These are all perfectly good points; there is no doubt that minimalist cover design can be an excellent way to save money, sell books, and transcend the kind of vile marketing tropes that so often stereotype books based on their ‘culture of origin’. But is it so hard to imagine a minimalist cover that also includes the translator’s name? Who decided that the name of the translator is not crucial, but ‘clutter’? If minimalist covers are, as Ghosh argues, a ‘unifying artistic symbol’ with the potential to ‘champion the creative industries’ minnows’, then the decision to exclude translators speaks volumes about who is considered ‘creative’ (or ‘artistic’) and who is not.
It is difficult for me to comprehend how anyone who has laboured over the translation of a literary text – as Weinberger and Hahn have done – could consider their own names ‘extra’ or ‘non-essential’ information. A translator’s work involves months or years of careful re-writing: we choose and type every single word, sometimes working in flow, sometimes in exquisite agony; we research and edit and finesse and defend the text from cover to cover, several times over. 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. 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. And they are doing it on social media – the one place where it is (sometimes) possible to evade the gatekeepers and undermine the hierarchies of the old literary guard.
Jennifer Croft has been one of the loudest and most active proponents of the #TranslatorsOnTheCover campaign, which was launched with the Society of Authors letter. An earlier Twitter movement, #NameTheTranslator, was started by Helen Wang in 2013, in response to the same issues translators are fighting today: ‘a tendency among reviewers and marketers of translated works to omit the name of the translator.’ This time, though, the campaign has gathered more momentum, thanks in part to Croft’s profile (and the brio of her 11,000 Twitter followers).
Not everyone is on board, however. Some have criticised the #TranslatorsOnTheCover movement for fetishising the cover instead of dealing with real structural problems within the translation community. In a statement given to Publishers Weekly, one small press publisher of literary translations – fittingly, they asked to remain anonymous – labels the movement ‘disingenuous’, arguing that there are ‘better ways to highlight and support the translators’ (such as focusing on back-of-house issues like royalties, rights and pay) than using cover credits as ‘the centrepiece of some sort of PR campaign.’ In response to such criticisms, translator and scholar Corine Tachtiris explains that the #TranslatorsOnTheCover movement is a necessary step towards the achievement of other important industry milestones. The road to better pay, better working conditions, and better ‘inclusion’ practices has to begin somewhere, she argues – so why shouldn’t it begin with a powerful symbolic display of recognition, like a name on a front cover? In one of her many Twitter threads on this topic, Tachtiris writes:
#TranslatorsOnTheCover is long-game organising. No one thinks it will miraculously fix pay/working conditions. Sure, it could lead to gesture-politics of recognition without pay, but put into a larger picture of organising – and organising always takes time – it has benefits. I also note that most of the critiques I’ve seen by people who ‘don’t care’ about their names on the cover are men. And I can’t help but think of the way women constantly have our labour go unrecognised (in the home, in university service and advising work, in organising work). Recognition/acknowledgment of labour may thus signify differently for women.
Anton Hur, translator of Bora Chung’s Cursed Bunny, seconds this, tweeting:
It’s also a race thing, because frankly, when you’re an Asian man in publishing, you’re basically invisible. Which is why I’m so goddamn loud and self-promoting all the time in this space. If I wasn’t, people would look right past me (even more than they already do). I don’t have the privileges of silence and politeness. Gigantic parts of this industry do not read works written by non-white people or non-men (this is extremely well-documented). When I speak, it’s like my words are either immediately discounted or not listened to at all. So spare me your humble-bragging about how you can just get on with your work, because you’re only signalling your privilege, not impressing me with your supposed work ethic.
Important here is Hur’s note that the ability to ‘just get on with it’ – that is, to avoid ‘getting political’ in one’s profession – is an indicator of privilege. Mandy Andress illustrates this point well in a recent article for TechCrunch on the visibility of LGBTQIA+ people working in tech. Andress reflects on the fact that, in some contexts, the simple fact of her existence – as an openly gay woman – might well be considered political. ‘If I worked for a different company,’ she wonders, ‘would being a gay woman who’s out at work make me “political”? Would talking with colleagues about my home life and my family be considered a political act?’ The desire or expectation for so-called ‘apolitical’ workplaces is, in Andress’s words, both ‘immoral’ and ‘unrealistic’, since individuals have little control over the ways in which their identity intersects with the cultural norms of their work environments. ‘When we consider who gets to define what’s political or not,’ Andress writes, ‘we need to think hard about the level of privilege they enjoy – and whom they might be excluding from everyday workplace conversations.’ Taking privilege into account, we might therefore characterise the ‘apolitical’ translator as one who is happy to remain invisible because they have not previously had invisibility imposed on them in most professional, literary, academic or social contexts. Hur sums up this idea neatly in another tweet: ‘You can afford to be invisible? Must be nice.’
In her 1988 essay Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation, Lori Chamberlain made an observation that has never ceased to be relevant: something that ‘proclaims itself to be an aesthetic problem’ is often much more than that; ‘what is consistently at issue is power.’ The fight for recognition now taking place may feel like empty symbolism to some, but it is deeply personal for others. Indeed, what could be more personal – or symbolic – than a name?
Eliot Weinberger has written a response to this essay. Read it here.
Chamberlain, Lori. ‘Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation’. Signs 13.3 (1988).
Weinberger, Eliot. ‘Anonymous Sources: A Talk on Translation and Translators’. Encuentros 39 (2000).