Opinion | Stop Pretending All Books Are Written in English

At a time when America’s understanding of other cultures is of paramount importance, translators are overdue to get credit for what they do. Especially because the justifications for leaving their names off are so misbegotten.

Most of it boils down to money. Publishing is a low-margin business, and paying translators a small fee (typically between 10 and 15 cents a word, far less than authors are paid) helps maintain the bottom line. Translators are also often excluded from royalty agreements, which means that even a financially successful book can have little impact on a translator’s pay. These arrangements are easier to pull off if the translator’s profile remains low.

The greater a book’s commercial prospects, the less likely the translator is to get credit. The fear, for the publisher, is of alienating an American readership that is assumed to be uncomfortable with anything foreign. “In some instances and for some genres, advertising that the book is a translation may not be in the best interest of sales or marketing,” one literary agent told Poets & Writers magazine.

Of course, the same thing was said for decades about authors with “ethnic” names — that they were a commercial liability. American readers seem to have gotten over that bias. But even if they hadn’t, it would be unimaginable to leave an author’s African or Asian name off the cover for “marketing” purposes. It’s also disrespectful to an author who is most likely proud of writing in her own language, as part of her country’s own literary tradition, to falsely create the impression she has written in a foreign tongue.

The rest of the culture doesn’t operate this way. American audiences have shown themselves to be enthusiastic consumers of screen programming from abroad. Why should the literary world lag behind the streaming world of “Money Heist” and “Squid Game”? Americans appreciate K-pop in its original Korean. Just as Hollywood abandoned dubbing foreign films over a decade ago, using subtitles instead to allow Americans to hear a wider range of voices, so too can book publishers decide to let readers know who’s translating the books they read.

Croft, the translator of Ukrainian literature, announced last summer that she would no longer translate works if her name didn’t appear on the cover — as it didn’t with her translation of the 2018 novel “Flights,” by the Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk. She and the novelist Mark Haddon posted an open letter online, calling on publishers to name translators on book covers. The letter has attracted more than 2,600 signatories, including Neil Gaiman, Bernardine Evaristo and Alexander Chee.

And last month, the chair of the International Booker Prize, which honors books in translation, called on publishers to include translators in royalty agreements. (The Booker splits its roughly $63,000 award evenly between author and translator.)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.