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The Translator’s (In)visibility

The paradox of the translator’s (in)visibility
Speaking of literary translation in terms of visibility might seem strange at first. Translators are supposed to provide a faithful rendering of the original text, a mirror image – in other words, they are expected to be as invisible as possible. This is the paradox that will be dealt with here: in order to be invisible in the text — or rather, to produce a translation that can compete with the original text in terms of beauty, persuasiveness etc., so that the reader does not have the feeling of reading just a pale imitation of an undoubtedly magnificent original —, literary translators must be visible in real life as authors: creators of new form and meaning. If not, they will be looked upon as mere ‘retypers in another language’, which in the end a lot of them will then indeed become due to the lack of the symbolic and financial capital needed to produce good quality translations.

Mentioning the translator’s name
From a legal point of view, literary translators have since long been considered authors of original works. Article 2 of the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, the original version of which was signed in 1886, stipulates: “Translations, adaptations, arrangements of music and other alterations of a literary or artistic work shall be protected as original works […].” The reason for this is, of course, that literary translations, like arrangements of music, cannot be produced in a mechanical way by submitting an original work to a fixed set of rules: literary translation is an art in that it involves the creative and interpretative decisions of the translator, which will differ from person to person, as a quick comparison between two translations of the same original immediately makes clear. Literary translation is just as much about difference (originality) as it is about identity (repetition), a fact that is confirmed by international copyright. The European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations (CEATL) even uses this as a definition: ‘As a literary translation we consider any translation of which the translator is the author in the legal sense, i.e. any translation that, as a text of its own, is protected by copyright law.’

One of the consequences of the translator being considered an author in the legal sense is that literary translators enjoy moral rights over their work, including the right to have their name mentioned. This also includes the right to be mentioned — ‘unless this turns out to be impossible’ — as (co-)author in the case of short quotations from a translation. Not surprisingly, the general public is not really aware of this. What might surprise, however, is the fact that the editorial staff of publishing houses, newspapers and broadcasting stations are often as unaware of their legal obligations as the general public. A survey carried out by CEATL among its members in 2010-2011, the results of which can be consulted on the CEATL website, points out that in the majority of European countries the name of the translator is not systematically mentioned in the case of short (or even longer) quotations.

Even more telling are the contexts in which the book and its original author are discussed or mentioned without any quotation from the text. In these contexts the mention of the translator’s name is generally not a legal obligation (although in some countries the title is legally considered to be part of the work, which would imply that the simple mention of the title is already a quotation), and it is indeed common practice not to mention it — even if it is completely clear that the reviewer has been reading the translation, not the original book. This general attitude stems, of course, from the erroneous assumption that translations should (and could) be identical to the source text — while paradoxically, many European languages refer to the subjective, unique rendering of a musical score with a word from the semantic field of translation: interpretation, interprétation, vertolking…

In the printed book itself the name of the translator is generally mentioned: sometimes only on the copyright page (3 out of 24 replies), but mostly also on the title page (22 out of 24). However, only in three countries can the name of the translator be regularly seen on the front cover of the book, and only in four countries does it appear on the back cover. Along with the failure to mention the name in reviews and discussions about translated books, this clearly indicates that the authorship of literary translators is still not taken seriously, in sharp contrast with comparable situations of double authorship, such as musical and theatrical performances (where it is taken for granted that the performer is the ‘second author’ of the work). But it might well be that a shift is beginning to take place, judging by the number of countries (5 out of 24 replies) where the appearance of the translator’s name on the front cover of the book is becoming increasingly common.

Cultural visibility
The mention (or not) of the translator’s name is only the tip of the iceberg, a first indication of the system’s health. This indication can of course be misleading: in some of the Arab countries, for example, the name of the translator always appears on the front cover of the book, whereas the translation fees are so low that no single translator can make a living out of his work while still delivering good quality. Generally speaking, however, one may assume that the appearance of the translator’s name on the front cover will eventually lead the reader to reflect on the fact that the book has passed through the brain and body of a second author, and even to form an opinion on this author’s work (though probably without knowing how to tell the dancer from the dance) so that in the future, the translator will be one of the determining factors for the choice of a book — and for the way it is read.

This is where the cultural visibility of the translator starts. CEATL’s visibility survey confirms that inviting the translator for press conferences, book presentations, readings, discussions and talks is not yet a general practice in most European countries. The fact that an actor is often asked to read the translation at a public event, while the original author reads his own text, is telling enough. Literary translators rarely appear on television to talk about their work and are only interviewed by general newspapers once they have won an important prize or translated the whole of Shakespeare or Proust. In short, they are not yet culturally visible.

Why should they be? Not only because the quality of translations and the translator’s mental and physical health will largely benefit, but also, more importantly, because the invisibility of translations and translators is part of a huge cultural lie, a fairy tale that has deceived human societies ever since the tower of Babel. It’s the lie of the bridge and ferry metaphors that are always used to characterize translation, the translator being the ‘bridge-builder’ or the ‘ferryman’ (Über-setzer) who makes an ever identical text cross the river between two cultures and languages. This is of course reassuring, because it would mean that Babel only caused superficial damage which can be easily repaired through translation. But it is no less a lie. Translators do not transport texts from one language to another, they read texts and try to capture what they see by means of their own subjective language. Both the reading and the capturing are active and creative processes, which is why translation is as much a loss (a departure) as it is a gain (an arrival).

Intercultural dialogue, then, which is considered to be at the heart of what Europe is all about, may never be reduced to the mechanical “circulation of works and dissemination of ideas and knowledge” promoted by the 2008 Council Resolution on a European strategy for multilingualism. Books and ideas can only cross borders (including borders between individual human beings) by being interpreted and re-created. This is what literary translation is all about, and the quality of this process depends on the visibility of its agents.

Perspectives and best practices
For the above-mentioned reasons, increasing the translator’s visibility is a major aim of almost all European translators’ associations. Everywhere in Europe public events are organized to make the public aware of the cultural importance of translation and translators. In order to facilitate the exchange of ideas between its member associations, CEATL is currently collecting best practices in this field, which will be published on both the public and the internal website.

Of course, no single big solution exists. For the problem of the translator’s name being omitted in the case of quotations, the Austrian way can serve as an example: in 1999, after hearing a radio narrator read long passages from two of his translations without his name being mentioned, translator Werner Richter brought legal action against the radio station; the case went through all courts, and in 2002 the Supreme Court ruled that Richter should indeed have been named as author. Of course copyright law is different in all European countries, but they all signed the Berne Convention, which is very clear about the conditions under which quotations are allowed: “mention shall be made of the source, and of the name of the author if it appears thereon” (Art. 10.3). In Austria, this rule is now generally respected with regard to translators.

But the ‘hard’ way of legal action cannot be effective without the ‘soft’ way, which is about raising consciousness among the general public and the responsible staff of publishing houses, newspapers, festivals, broadcasting stations etc. This can be done by launching press campaigns on special topics, like CEATL is about to do with its Hexalogue or ‘Six Commandments for Fair-Play in Literary Translation’ (which include the commandment that the translator be mentioned whenever the original author is mentioned). Another, more festive way to raise consciousness is to organize events, which can even be international or pan-European (like International Translators’ Day, for which CEATL’s Visibility working group has now started developing plans).

The most important thing, however, is never to forget what it’s all about: sharing enthusiasm about books, and trying to show that translated books can be works of art and sources of knowledge on their own, which do justice to the original texts by reinventing, not by simply repeating them. Small-scale events are probably the best way to achieve this, through the personal contact a translator can have with an audience. This is why initiatives like the German ‘Weltlesebühne’ (www.weltlesebuehne.de) are so valuable: an ongoing series of readings and public discussions in different cities will bring the public much closer to the mystery of translation than large events, with famous writers and politicians talking about bridge-building between cultures, could ever do.

In the age of Google Translate the need for this kind of action is all the more urgent because the creative and cultural contribution of the literary translator seems to be more invisible than ever. Here lies a grand (and grant) responsibility for those institutions entrusted with the task of protecting and promoting our cultural and linguistic diversity.

[Discussion text for the PETRA congress (Brussels, 1-3 December 2011) © Martin de Haan, CEATL.]

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