Who was the translator, did you say?

Riverton Press plans to publish a translated book with the translator’s name on the front cover. It’s not new to have a translator’s name there, but it’s not common either. Probably most translators of books would say they should be recognised as creators of new versions of texts with their name in a prominent place. In this case, we met a translator who said he did not want his name on the book cover. So we’ve had to consider the question.

There are a couple of main arguments posed against putting the translator’s name on the front cover of a book, firstly, an imagined or real prejudice by the potential reader against “foreign” works: fear of the foreign will hurt sales. This argument is surprising today, we’re always being encouraged to enjoy our diverse multicultural societies, yet some publishers hide the foreign, assume we don’t like it, and “protect” us from it!!

Even literary translators such as David Hahn say that a jacket is there to sell a book, not to list credits. I think that’s a limited commercial view of the book cover, which should make a book aesthetically pleasing per se. This brings us to the second point, design. Graphic designers can argue that adding the name of a translator on a cover is a challenge. But they are often asked to accommodate words of praise by famous persons or other promotional material. The European Council of Literary Translators Associations (CEATL) believes that a book cover with the translator’s name on it does not have to be ugly, and has taken the trouble to make a collection of book covers from Europe to demonstrate that point. Sometimes these covers also mention the name of the source language, sometimes not. One cover even says “translated from the Spanish (Cuba) by…” 

Publishers who agree to put the translators’ names on the front cover believe that translators create new versions of an original text, they create work that is their own, and deserve due recognition. In the best of cases, in the world of books, that recognition is their name on the front cover. More commonly however, their name will be on the title page.

Translators aim to be invisible in the text, that is, they aim to make their language flow, to write like a native, I suppose we might say, even as they convey ideas and behaviours from other languages and societies. But that doesn’t mean translators should be invisible or hard to find in the presentation of their product.

Readers might WANT to know about the translation. Why not tell me straight away that this book by Jose Saramago has been translated by Margaret Jull Costa, that this book by WG Sebald has been translated by Michael Hulse or by Anthea Bell? That this book in Spanish has been translated from Basque or Catalan or Nahuatl?

In the case of our upcoming book, a translation from Italian to English, the author was always happy to share cover space with her translator, he was the one who didn’t want his name there. After some time, the author told me that the translator had reluctantly agreed to have his name on the jacket. At least I think that’s what he said, I’m told that he agreed with “malincuore”. This word sounds to me like he feels bad to the heart if his name is on the cover. Well, we don’t want that, so there’s a conflict for Riverton Press!

The Society of Authors (UK) believes translators’ names should appear on book jackets. They say:

Translators are the life-blood of both the literary world and the book trade which sustains it. They should be properly recognised, celebrated and rewarded for this. …. From now on we will be asking, in our contracts and communications, that our publishers ensure, whenever our work is translated, that the name of the translator appears on the front cover.

It’s fun to browse through the book covers collected by CEATL, you’ll find a link on this page:

I should add that David Hahn writes in the excellent online literary translation journal Asymptote.

The photo shows part of a door in Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona.