Growing up bilingual I always thought I had an easy back-up as a translator should my chosen career path not work out. This arrogance came crashing down the very first time I was asked to do some freelance translation. Going word for word made me feel like Google Translate, but I was too afraid of ruining the meaning if I got creative with the language or style, and every choice made me second guess myself. Since then I have had a healthy respect for professional translators (and have a more realistic plan B)!
My respect increased by the minute listening to the discussion between Anne Pia, Vineet Lal and Kari Dickson at the Edinburgh Bookshop’s ‘An Evening In Translation’ (5th October 2021) as they compared the rewards and struggles of the profession.
They talked about finding the balance between keeping the structure and style of the original author, and making sure the translated piece conveys the same meaning and emotion. For example, one could faithfully translate cultural references specific to growing up in France, but the nostalgia would be lost on the new readers. Being creative with substitutions was agreed by all to be for the greater good of the text’s reception. This is especially the case when translating poems or songs, as rhyme scheme, metaphor and social significance can all fall victim to a translator who sticks too stringently to the limitations of the original text.
With a translator giving their own style and experience to the new text, how much ownership can they claim over it? As Vineet Lal said, “it’s a new entity you’ve created”. While the characters and story are clearly thanks to the original author, the reader’s enjoyment of these relies on the language choices and narrative voice of the translator. We therefore have to attribute the globalisation of a popular text in large part to its various translators. They are crucial to its success.
Yet this is not reflected in the way translators are celebrated. Remuneration is done by word count, with royalties often not included in the contract, or only counted after a certain number of sales. A hot topic at the present is the lack of representation of translator details on book covers. Most readers have to open their books to the title page before finding the translator’s name. Other times, more often in non-fiction and coffee table books, the name is only to be found on the copyright page, which the average consumer does not read. The Society of Authors launched a popular campaign for translators to be credited on the covers of books, which led this week to Pan Macmillan announcing that it would do so, also including the name on all promotional material. I personally hope that this will lead to other companies following suit. Whilst appropriate accreditation will not in itself solve the issue of poor remuneration, my hope is that the increased prestige that comes with such publicity will allow translators to negotiate better contracts in the future.