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The people have spoken, and the UK’s Big Five publishers are listening. Following the Society of Authors’ successful campaign to increase translator recognition, Pan Macmillan announced today that they will now credit translators on their book covers. While this increased visibility is certainly important, the true work of a translator remains largely overlooked or misunderstood. At The Edinburgh Bookshop’s recent event, “An Evening in Translation”, translators Anne Pia, Kari Dickson and Vineet Lal illuminated the unknown, editorial-like role a translator plays in trade fiction publishing.

Edinburgh-based freelance translator, Vineet Lal, says he keeps one mantra in mind when translating fiction: “I’m the closest reader this text will ever have.” A fiction translator must intimately acquaint themselves with a story’s symbols, themes, and tone to honestly convey what Lal called the “heart” of the story; however, translators can’t be afraid to exercise some creativity when translating a text.

Translators are the closest reader a text will ever have.

Vineet Lal

Translators don’t just translate: they re-communicate a text’s key ideas for an audience with different speech patterns, customs, and ideologies than the author. Fear of veering from the author’s original phrasing can debilitate a translator’s process. To highlight this point, Kari Dickson shared her experience translating a story set in an American police station from English to Norwegian. Her direct translation of the word “hotline” into Norwegian had editors asking why a police station would offer a phone-sex service.

According to Vineet Lal, a translator’s job is to produce a translated text that won’t stand out in its new language market. This means identifying and adapting small details like language-specific idiosyncrasies. For example, all three panellists agreed French writers are unusually fond of dialogue tags. They spend a lot of time removing ‘he saids’ and ‘she saids’ when translating French to English.

By the end of “An Evening in Translation”, one thing became clear: translators and editors aren’t that different. They both identify the key elements of a text and ensure they’re communicated in the most coherent, cohesive, and culturally appropriate manner possible to appeal to a specific target audience. And yet, translators have historically been un-acknowledged, their names often left out of imprint pages, much less book covers.

Translators and editors aren’t that different.

Pan Macmillan’s decision to start crediting its translators signals the start of an important industry shift, but Anne Pia, Kari Dickson and Vineet Lal believe UK publishing houses could be doing more. According to the three panellists, publishers should focus on not just recognizing translators but also offering them more equitable renumeration. This includes better adherence to standard payment rates recommended by the Translators Association and more favourable royalty agreements.

Like editors, translators are vital players in the creative processes of trade fiction publishing. Hopefully, visibility campaigns, cover acknowledgements, and events like “An Evening in Translation” will continue to show the world that translators are so much more than the human equivalent of Google Translate.