The Name of the Translator
When I learned that the theme of this year’s debate in Tunis would be “Literature and dialogue”, I could not but think of the work that I had been doing for over thirty years now – translation. No other activity seems to me to exemplify better the essence and the necessity of dialogue. The two, I would claim, are almost synonymous.
Translation, a meeting of what is familiar with what is foreign, lies at the very origins of our cultural identities. Without translation, it is hard to imagine not only “world literature”, but also the so-called national literatures, if not national languages. There would be no English as we know it without King Alfred’s daring project of translating “works of wisdom” from Latin in the early Middle Ages. There would be no Polish language literature as we know it if it had not been for the translations of the Psalms at the time of the Renaissance. Translation, the meeting with the other, and the gradual discovery of the otherness within oneself, is the originating force of all cultural phenomena. We tend to forget about it.
I cannot think of a more important dialogue than translation. So why do I talk about translation in this debate on false dialogue?
Let me illustrate my point. The book I have here with me is a collection of short stories by a young Irish writer, Collin Barret, recently published in Poland. I’ve just read these stories and greatly admired the power of their language. The prose runs with an astonishing speed, mingling colloquial diction with lyrical passages. What a master of language this young Irish guy is, I thought to myself. But wait! Are these two words of the title in English? Mlode skory. No, this is Polish. Collin Barret doesn’t speak Polish. Am I really admiring Collin Barret’s diction then, or the language of his Polish translator, a Polish woman translator, who did this wonderful job of rendering this text into Polish? It is her who chose words, who joined them, who constructed the actual sentences that I liked so much. It is in fact her Polish that I admire. But where is her name in the book? You will not find it on the book cover, her work is acknowledged in small letters printed under the title inside the book. This is not fair. The moment they look at the book, readers should know who is responsible for the words they read, who stands between them and the author, who makes this intercultural dialogue possible.
It is almost a rule that the name of the translator does not appear on the cover of the book. We’ve gotten used to it. It is almost a rule that wherever there is a chance, the translator’s name is omitted. Book reviewers hardly ever mention the translator’s work. We’ve gotten used to this, as well. The name of the translator is often dropped from publicity materials prepared by the publisher. Literature in translation is advertised as foreign: American, British, German, French, but not as translated, as if in some miraculous process it came to us without the mediator. The reader is supposed to know that the book comes from abroad, because it gives the book some prestige, but that it was translated by someone, and in very particular circumstances, in very specific economic conditions, is the knowledge the publishers would rather keep to themselves. This is false dialogue.
What matters in dialogue is trust. It has to be strong enough to make people talk and listen to each other sincerely. The translator’s work, being a precondition of a sincere dialogue, must also be based on trust. In order to mediate successfully between us and the other, in order to make possible the dialogue between us and the other, the translator has to be trusted. We, as readers, should believe that what she translates has been worth translating. That by deciding to translate a novel or a poem, she is recommending them to us. That she is not a hired hand in the service of publishing companies, literary agents, or arts councils, but a sovereign, critical and creative individual who participates in the process of producing and distributing value.
What I demand is to have the names of translators on book covers, next to the names of the authors. Not because I think translators should get their due or that in this way they should be gratified or elevated. It is not to honor them that I demand to make their names more visible. Quite the contrary, by having their names on book covers, translators would carry greater responsibility. They would be responsible for what the reader looks at. They would guarantee the quality of the book they offer to us.
The name of the translator on the book cover is important in order to make the dialogue honest and reliable again. The name of the translator reminds us that what we deal with is a foreign text, coming from a foreign culture, different from ours. That these differences may be exciting, but they may also be troubling and challenging. The name of the translator reminds us also that what we read is but a version, one of the possible renditions of a given foreign text into our language. And as such, that it can be contested, questioned, or rejected. In the name of an honest dialogue, we have to know about it.
But we are made to believe, by publishers, by arts councils, by book reviewers, that the books in translation have no history, that they are not elements in cultural policies, in other words, we are invited to accept them uncritically as innocent, unproblematic, universally acknowledged texts. We are made to take them for granted. But these texts have been mediated, some have been translated very well, some have been translated very poorly. More than this, some have been translated beautifully, but have departed far from the original. Some have been translated faithfully, but to read them is a torture. Without the name of the translator on the book cover, without the visibility of the translator, we agree to be manipulated, we are led to accept the book as it comes, without knowing the long process of what preceded its publication.
Today, behind translated literatures stand not translators, but numerous institutions, corporations with their vested interests and organizations, which take part in what often amounts to cultural colonialism. Translators lose their position of initiators of the dialogue and mediators between cultures.
I’m talking to you in English, some of you are listening to me, but not to my words, to the words of interpreters, who translate my English into French. We rely in our dialogue on these translators. But where are they? What are their names? I think it is very symbolic that the interpreters, the translators, sit in cabins over there, which are like cages, like the cage in which Nadia Savchenko, the Ukrainian pilot, sat during her Moscow trial, not only separating them from us, but also hiding them, or wiping them out of the space we inhabit. Is this fair?
What kind of dialogue is it, if those who make it possible are caged, cabined, or at best remain anonymous? They form the dialogue that we conduct here and we pretend that they do not exist. Are we ashamed of them? The enemies of translators are the enemies of dialogue.
We are all translated men and women, our language is translationese. If we forget it, myths of ethnic purity, myths of cultural homogeneity, will never cease to bother us, giving birth to the monsters of exclusion and ethnic cleansing.
Translators are the proletariat of the literary world.