Place translators on book covers


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Translated literature is on the rise, which is wonderful, but we need to make sure that we honor the translators who work on each book. Too often, translators are seen as “invisible” contributors to the book, hidden on title pages or even in copyright sections. I flipped through a book trying to find its translator in its title page, back cover, everything, only to have to give up and find it online.

There are a few prominent translators who have managed to gain more recognition, but these are largely exceptions. Most of the exceptions are classical literature, largely because there are several different translations of it. For example, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky feature on the covers of their relatively recent translations of Anna Karenina and War and peace. But modern novels are left behind.

Ann Goldstein, translator of the Neapolitan novels by Elena Ferrante, is known for her role in translating the internationally successful quartet, but she does not appear on the cover of the books. Do you know the names of Haruki Murakami’s translators? Jay Rubin translated The chronicle of birds to go up. Murakami’s first translator was Alfred Birnbaum, his most recent is Philip Gabriel. These are just three of the people responsible for delivering his famous novels to English readers, and their names do not appear on the covers of his books.

Recently, translators lobbied for better representation on book covers, and as a reader and reviewer, I agree. Translators must appear on the cover of the book, with the author. Anything less is dishonest and unfair.

Cover of the Chronicle of birds to wind up

As became apparent to many when the English dubbed version of squid game was released on Netflix in the United States, translation is not an easy task. It takes a lot of time and effort from an individual or, often, a group of people working together, giving each other information, sharing notes. The nuances of translation can be very complex. Translators have to make creative choices, from tone to syntax to how to handle slang.

The smallest choice of words or phrases can have a big impact on the emotion conveyed. In some cases, you even have to cash expression to match a cultural perception of emotion. Think about the difference between “I had no choice” and “I had no choice”, between “I have a crush” and “I like someone”. In some cases they mean the same thing, but the implications are different.

In other words, every English-translated book we receive in the United States has been rewritten for us. A single person or a team of people took a text in a language we didn’t understand and translated every word, every sentence, every paragraph, into English. A straight-to-literal translation is fundamentally never satisfactory, which is why each translation has been carefully researched and made readable in a way that takes into account cultural context, slang, emotional resonance and connotations.

book cover of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

This is a miraculous feat! Anyone who has had to translate a single sentence in a language course must know how impossible it seems. Every translator poured their heart and soul into the book they translated, and they should be credited alongside the author.

Think of it this way: there are actually two books. There is — for example — Man som hatar kvinnor by Stieg Larsson and there is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Laarsson, translated by Reg Keeland. They are different books. They may have different word counts. They have literally different titles, as the Swedish title literally translates to “Men Who Hate Women”. Each time a book is translated, there are then two texts in the world: the original by the author alone, and the translation by the author and the translator.

I should note that my copy of The girl with the dragon tattoo, this incredible international bestseller, does not mention its translator, Reg Keeland, on its cover. And that highlights the problem. Keeland was a crucial author of the English manuscript, but his name is nowhere in our sights. American readers might pick up this book without knowing that it has been translated.

Ink Heart cover

And maybe the publishers’ marketing teams think it’s better. They might think that more books will sell because Americans and Britons will be less inclined to buy translated works. After all, we are extremely English-centric countries. And people tend to assume, for some reason, that translated work is automatically more literary or rigid.

But how are we supposed to break down those perceptions if books like Dragon Tattoo don’t have their translators listed on the cover? When I was a child I read Ink heart by Cornelia Funke — did you know it was translated from German by Anthea Bell? I was not. It wasn’t on the cover. The teams of translators must also be recognized. For example, the award-winning book Breasts and Eggs by Mieko Kawakami, a 2020 Time best novel of the year and New York Times Notable Book of 2020, translated by Sam Bett and David Boyd. But you wouldn’t know that by looking at the cover.

Breasts and Eggs book cover

All of this matters beyond the realm of simple fairness. There are Too few books available in English translation from around the world. There is a wealth of international literature that English-speaking readers do not have access to because there is not enough funding for translations or support for translators.

Recognition can support translators and strengthen their place in the literary world: they cannot be buried in a footnote if their name is on the cover of their book. If the book wins an award and the trophy, cover, and list all include the translator’s name, that recognition is extended.

Through many other channels, we have seen that recognition and awareness can support concrete change, and I strongly believe that general awareness of the prominence and importance of translators is not just symbolic. There was a lot of publicity around bad translations of squid game, corn Netflix actually only spent $6,305 translating the show, even though the show made nearly $1 billion.. Translators deserve better than that. Verry much better.

By placing their names next to those of the authors, publishers would also be compelled to recognize their crucial role in providing a text. This increase in respect could support the field as it fights for better salaries, royalties and more in the future. The more we celebrate translation, the more books we can get translated because publishers will see they sell and matter.

So what can you do to help? First, read books in translation, and when you share your love for them, include the translator’s name. Call publishers who have not included translators on their covers, using the hashtag #TranslatorsOnTheCover. Do you have any favorite books that have been translated and you remember the author but not the translator? Fix that – search for it, then follow the translator on social media, or find what else he’s been working on.

And let them know you love their work! For example: I love the work of translators Megan McDowell (Things We Lost in the Fire, Fever Dream) and Tina A. Kover (Disoriental, A Beast in Paradise). Shout it from the rooftops! Share your love of their work alongside the work of the authors. Don’t let translators’ names be buried anymore.


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