Name the Translator: a Cautiously Contrary View

To the extent that I benefit from campaigns for greater recognition for translators, I shouldn’t carp about them, but they inspire a measure of ambivalence in me. Many veteran translators encourage their less-experienced counterparts not to settle for anything less than a certain rate (the BCLT recommends a handsome £88.50 per 1,000 words, while American translators seem to hover somewhere between ¢ .10 and .13 per word), which is not bad advice but ignores a number of difficulties, such as: that many small presses really don’t have the resources to pay; that it may be impossible for a translator’s pet project to arouse the interest of better-funded publishers; that a beginning translator may not have the CV needed to command the same rate as someone better known; and that many times, the choice is not between a bad deal and a better one, but between a bad deal and not getting published at all. Particularly for those who have yet to see their first book in print, the veneer of legitimacy publication beings may trump all other considerations. Translation is no more immune than any other field of the race to the bottom that can occur when desperate workers compete to outbid one another for work; but I don’t have the impression that this is especially dire at the present moment, because the expense of translation remains negligible for big publishers and *many* smaller publishers seem motivated to pay their translators a fair wage –– and regardless, I would argue that blame should be laid with capitalism as presently constituted rather than people who are hard-pressed to make a buck.

I have similar misgivings about the #namethetranslator campaign that has sprung up on Twitter. There is a part of me that likes the relative anonymity of translating, the privilege of working with beautiful words without appearing pompous or precious, the quiet dignity of craft as against the bombast of art. Of course, it’s nice to be recognized, but the craving for the recognition of others has long been correctly diagnosed as a vice. Beyond that, I wonder in how many cases is the translation representative of what the translator would do, were she free to do so, or even what the translator has actually done?

Here is a clause you will never see in a contract: “PUBLISHER guarantees the integrity of TRANSLATOR’S work will be preserved from editorial whim and chicanery.”

Now, it is possible that a few highly esteemed translators, who are commissioned to produce translations for which their name and style are selling points, manage to wrangle an agreement of this kind. But most publishers, I believe, would respond to such a demand with a two-word imperative ending in “off.” I am not certain there is a clear-cut right or wrong in this: the author’s original intent, the sense of the original, and so on are slippery issues, and in the short term, it is the publisher who stands to lose if a book flops (of course, a book may also flop thanks to ill-advised interventions on the part of a publisher, but this is a different matter). Some of this depends on the project at hand: I have translated pieces on spec because I thought they were beautiful or necessary, and I would be loth to impinge upon my understanding of them, as represented in the translation, for mere commercial considerations; other projects I have taken on for money, and what the publisher does with them thereafter is indifferent to me. And though this may not be a popular opinion to air, not all books are equally respectable: some authors work with intelligence, precision, and attention to detail, but many books are laden with errors, malaprops, repetitions, clichés, and various other trappings of intellectual sloth. I cannot see that the latter should merit the same regard as the former.

Many publishing contracts place strict limits, not only on the role of the translator, but even on that of the foreign author and her publisher with regards to the final version of a text in the second language. Translators or authors objecting to changes introduced by a publisher often have no recourse whatsoever. It is easy to aver that they should not have put their names to such a contract; it is generally easy to prattle about what other people should or shouldn’t do; but again, this is a question of deep-rooted social inequalities as a result of which most workers, including those employed in culture industries, have no choice but to take what they can get, and no amount of principled moral posturing will change that.

In other words, there is often no legal barrier to prevent a publisher from dismantling and completely rewriting an author’s or translator’s work. I do not know how often this is done, but it does happen; it may be for the better, and the author or the translator may consent to it. But the fact remains that the final project has little to do with the translator, and the assumption that the final text is her responsibility is a distortion of reality.

There is a final, rather more trifling point to consider: as has been widely noted, and as is obvious to anyone who owns a computer, something about the internet inflames many people’s inner douche, and once inflamed, the opportunities to run off at the mouth online are nearly endless . Not only that, but sounding smart is a beloved pastime of the internet douche, and commenting on the quality of a translation is a capital way to sound smart. In a time when blogs, self-styled critics, and public forums like Goodreads and Amazon have a nebulous but not negligible influence on books’ fate, inviting the captious to bring translation into their purview may not, in the end, prove wise. I can remember my obnoxious old roommate, whose grandparents were French but who could not have ordered a cup of tea in that language unaided, complaining once that the subtitles were wrong while we watched La Femme Nikita. When I asked why, he grumbled, “they’re just leaving a lot of stuff out.” He was bluffing, he knew I knew he was bluffing, he knew I knew that he knew it, and he shut his mouth for the rest of the film. Unfortunately, the barrier of scrutiny met with by the quibbling or showy in real life is largely absent on the internet, and few things are easier, with a semester or two of language under one’s belt, than to compare a translation to an original and start blathering about how “really what this word means is X…”

Finally there is the plain fact that some books are simply bad, and that is no insurance against their being translated. I remember imagining the Empyrean Heaven I thought translators dwelt in before I was engaged in that métier: a stately realm where people sat around drinking espresso and sifting through book after book in search of timeless pearls; twice a year or so they would find one, to their publishers’ unending gratitude… Something like this may obtain for translators with a day job, but those who earn their bread by their pen alone are inevitably forced into some kind of compromise (I have a strong feeling Paulo Coelho is not a labor of love for Margaret Jull Costa). Typically critics who lambaste a translator’s style as creaky, wooden, stiff, etc. have no idea of the defects of the original, which may be significantly worse than its translated counterpart. A major motivation for translators to improve upon the original is their awareness, unjust though it may be, that they will be made to answer for its infelicities; but sometimes no amount of intervention can save a book from its author’s ineptitude. As they say in Naples, é inutile continuare a versare rhum: uno stronzo non diventerà mai un baba…