Sunday, 21 September 2014

On Visibility

Something has been niggling away at me from Friday's symposium. One of the panels was on "Translators' Status and Visibility", and was composed of a newspaper book critic, a publishing house editor and a literary translator. And of course the whole room was full of disgruntled translators, who seemed to feel that critics and editors are to blame for translators' lack of status and visibility in Germany. So that made for a rather difficult discussion, I thought. Because yes, as the critic pointed out, there is less and less space for reviews because, as the editor pointed out, fewer and fewer people are reading literature.

So there were a couple of things that irritated me. The first was the assumption in the room that print critics and editors are the only people with any influence over the public's awareness of translators. As I tried to point out but maybe didn't quite manage, there are other people out there, especially on the internet, who are aware of translators' existence and our work. I'm very grateful to the bloggers and online magazine people and tweeters and all those other people on the (Anglophone) internet who help spread the word about our work. There are too many to mention, and I hope the same thing is or will soon be happening in German. And part b of this section of my complaint is that we translators can also do things ourselves to make ourselves more visible, like the Love Your Translator people and Authors and Translators and all the blogging, tweeting, tumblring individual translators out there. Not just that – we can write translator's notes and articles and essays and we can help publicize our books, we can accompany our writers when they read in our countries, and so on. And these things are happening, much more now than ever before, and we are becoming more visible, in Germany and elsewhere, because we're putting ourselves out there, like with the Weltlesebühne and with translation slams and the Bridge Series and other events revolving around just us.

Having said that, I would like to pick holes in a couple of things the panellists said too, seeing as they can't defend themselves. Except maybe in the comments section.

So the critic said, newspapers don't commission reviews of translated books from non-critics, for example Sinologists for Chinese books, because they want critics to be generalists who can build a bridge to the reader. And that means that most reviewers don't feel qualified to comment on translation quality. And I was just sitting there and thinking, well – as the translator on the panel pointed out – online publications don't have spatial limitations, so if I was running a newspaper (let's call it the Utopian Times) I would commission several reviews of the same book (with my unlimited budget): one by a generalist critic, and others by people who know something specific so they can talk about non-general aspects such as translation, plausibility, etc. The same way they get other authors to write fiction reviews, or cardiologists to review non-fiction books about the heart. I might even commission translators to critique translations, if they were very brave. And in fact I don't see any reason why newspaper editors couldn't do exactly the same thing right now, other than "we don't do it that way". Because there are books that get huge long critiques, those event-type books, and why can't you split that half-page review up into two quarter-pages?

But what really got me worked up was what the publishing house editor said about why they don't put translators' names on book covers very often. The reason, she said, was that readers of genre fiction don't care who translated their book. She justified this statement with the example of a German crime writer with a fake French name and biography but obviously no translator's name in the front of the book, because there wasn't a translator. And she said that nobody noticed, ergo: readers don't care. Now first of all, that's a rather speculative assumption, and there was a suggestion from the critic that devoted readers of crime and fantasy actually are interested in their books' translators. But more importantly: even if readers don't care, why should it bother them if you print the translator's name more prominently? You'd make the translators happier, you might even make us take more pride in our work, and you wouldn't bother the readers because they don't care either way, allegedly.

Anyway, that's been preying on my mind for a couple of days and I haven't had any adult company to unload it on since, so here it is. Things are getting better, most publishers and some reviewers are helping translators to become more visible, which can only improve our status, and most importantly we're becoming more confident in ourselves. Hooray for us.

Update: I ought to point out, this fine Monday morning, that the symposium was very good, and in itself evidence that our status as literary translators is on the up. Firstly because the European Commission asked us to hold a whole symposium at their expense, and secondly because it was very well organized and very interesting.


Ina Pfitzner said...

Katy, I actually think that specialist's reviews could be a good thing, because they can also provide more background and thereby enhance the reading experience for the average reader. It makes me think of the informed Nachwörter in most East German books and liner notes on record sleeves. There was a political/ propagandist element to that, but also a lot of background information. I also think one really shouldn't underestimates readers.

Dana (@WantedAdventure) said...

Very interesting points here! Really got me thinking, both as a part-time translator and as a reader of translated books. For me, whether I'm interested in knowing who translated the book or not depends on the book. If I'm reading some guilty-pleasure romance novel, I probably wouldn't care (but sure, go ahead and put the name of the translator on the cover! That's fine!). But if it's a book I'm more invested in, say like when I read The Count of Monte Cristo, I was very interested in who the translator was and really did some research on them to find out what interpretation and thoughts they brought to the book, as a translation can definitely vary from translator to translator!