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On translators’ labor and invisibility

This essay is part of Transpacific Literary Project’s monthly column, with art by Mit Jai Inn.

In August 2021, the award-winning translator Jennifer Croft tweeted, “I’m not translating any more books without my name on the cover. Not only is it disrespectful to me, but it is also a disservice to the reader, who should know who chose the words they’re going to read.” 

Her message gained traction, and within a month she and the author Mark Haddon had put together an open letter for authors to pledge to give translators cover credit on all other language editions of their books. At the time of writing of this essay, the open letter has garnered 2,721 signatures. In an essay for the Guardian, Croft amplified her point, stating that translators are “the most reliable advocates for our books, and we take better care of them than anybody else. Covers simply can’t continue to conceal who we are. It’s bad business, it doesn’t hold us accountable for our choices.” 

Some publishing professionals strongly resisted Croft’s argument. Pushkin Press’s Adam Freudenheim argued against it, on the grounds that “the front cover is a sales tool ultimately, above all, it’s a kind of shopfront window”—implying that having a translator’s name on the cover would hurt sales. Richard Charkin echoed this point, asserting, “Nobody I know has ever bought a book because it’s a translation, but there are people who are less likely to buy a book if they think it is a translation. I am sorry about this, but I believe it to be true in nearly every case.” 

For those who care about actual evidence rather than anecdotal evidence: Megan Clarke, who conducted postgraduate research on this subject, found that 20.6 percent of UK readers would in fact be more interested in reading a book if it were in translation, while only 6.2 percent said they would be less interested. Clarke also noted the propensity for “decision-makers to act on often inaccurate assumptions about the market and other players in the translation process.” 

The idea that naming the translator will tip off potential readers that the book is a translation, hence leading to fewer sales, is a widespread one, yet as Rachel Zarrow points out, despite the “long-held belief in the publishing industry that books with translators’ names on the covers sell fewer copies than those without the names of translators, … no one knew of a concrete, data-driven example to support the claim.” The idea is pure superstition, hinting at a disdain for translation among those who hold this belief, even as they claim to champion international work. 

Fortunately, not everyone is of this mindset, with Pan Macmillan announcing that they would acknowledge translators “on the book cover and all promotion materials” in response to Croft’s campaign, while Catapult’s Kendall Storey pushed back robustly against the idea of concealment: “What is there to be gained by leaving the translator’s name off the cover, anyway? …Is it to trick unsuspecting readers into thinking they’re buying an English-language original? How long will that ruse last?” 

Why has change been so slow in coming? A glance at this year’s International Booker Prize (an award of £50,000, divided equally between author and translator, given annually for a book of fiction translated into English), a year and a half after Croft’s campaign, shows that only four of the thirteen longlisted books name the translator on the front cover. While translators face many other pressing issues—copyright, pay, and royalties, to name just a few—the question of credit is particularly interesting to me since it would cost publishers nothing to start naming translators on the front cover right away. The fact that they have not suggests something else is at work here beyond financial viability: the visibility of the translator. 

For clarity, I’m talking about the translator’s visibility in the literary landscape rather than in the translation itself, which is a different argument altogether. Some translators relish the ability to disappear into their words. Anthea Bell wrote that she wished her translations could be like a “perfectly transparent pane of glass,” while Don Mee Choi memorably said, “I happen to like translator’s invisibility. I’m that tongue that has licked and groomed every word and punctuation. So whether you see me or not is not my problem. The real problem is the slimy saliva my tongue has left behind, which you will be or are already in contact with.” While each translator will negotiate their own engagement with the text and the extent to which they obtrude, this is all too often conflated with translators themselves being unseen. 

And I do understand that this is a seductive vision—of operating in the shadows, existing stealthily just beyond the edge of perception, like a magician or ninja. Yet as Lawrence Venuti notes, the translator’s desire for invisibility is “a weird self-annihilation, a way of conceiving and practicing translation that undoubtedly reinforces its marginal status in British and American cultures.” 

For myself, working between two languages as far apart as English and Chinese, I cannot help but feel my visibility when I make choices as fundamental as assigning temporality where it is ambiguous in the source (Chinese has no tenses), deciding whether there are one or many of a given object (Chinese has no plurals), or choosing the gender of a protagonist’s pet (Chinese uses a single gender-neutral pronoun for most animals).

As a translator, I am very much not the “pane of glass” that Norman Shapiro evokes (“You only notice that it’s there when there are little imperfections”). As a translator of plays, I am often present in the rehearsal room, reshaping the dialogue in collaboration with actors and a director. Working mostly with writers who don’t speak English and editors who don’t speak Chinese, I am frequently required to mediate editorial conversations. I supply translator’s notes and footnotes, the latter of which Heather Cleary locates, in The Translator’s Visibility, “at the intersection of two contradictory mandates: the fidelity of ‘subordinates, slaves, and foreign annotators’ and the autonomy of the commentator, who occupies a position of critical distance”—an in-betweenness I am naturally attracted to. 

All of this, of course, is only visible if the reader chooses to perceive it. Venuti reminds us that whether or not the translator is invisible is as much in the reception as in the creation. The reader who does not know Chinese or its context may not consider the amount of thought that has gone into producing a text, particularly if it conforms to the “commonly accepted notions of fluency” Venuti cites. More likely, it will not occur to the reader who does not already have a lively interest in translation, because of the general invisibility of translators in Anglophone culture. 

Popular representations of translators often conflate this perceived invisibility with nonexistence. In Katie Kitamura’s A Separation, the translator protagonist muses, “The task of a translator is a strange one. People are prone to saying that a successful translation doesn’t feel like a translation at all, as if the translator’s ultimate task is to be invisible. Perhaps that is true.” (Kitamura returns to the theme in her next novel, Intimacies, in which the similarly unnamed protagonist, an interpreter this time, realizes that the man whose words she is translating regards her as “pure instrument, someone without will or judgment, a consciousness-free zone into which he could escape.”) Worse, a desire for visibility can be portrayed as leading a translator to overstep, as with the disgruntled Maria in the film Book of Love, who yearns so badly to be an author that she allows herself to completely rewrite a stodgy British book, transforming it into a bodice ripper; the movie eventually rewards her for this rebellion by having the British author take her on as his co-author as well as his lover. 

Which brings us to the trope of translator as traitor. The protagonist of Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto is not only a translator; her very name, Magsalin, means “to translate” in Tagalog. When hired by a filmmaker, Chiara, who then objects to the idea of translation as a form of co-authorship, Magsalin insists, “I did not revise the manuscript… I presented the possibilities of translation. A version, one might say.” To which Chiara retorts, “A translator is not a writer. … You are replacing the story. It’s not a version. It’s an invasion.” This contentiousness feels appropriate, given the novel’s concern with history, which can be just as fraught and contested. As Denise Kripper tells us in Narratives of Mistranslation: Fictional Translators in Latin American Literature, “The implausibility of a faithful translation re-elaborates the inability to retrieve a full, intact past. Memories, as well as translations, are always mediated, and historical and literary sources do not record history but rather construct it discursively.” 

Perhaps it is this subconscious fear of the treacherous translator that led to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel The Lost Daughter failing to name translator Ann Goldstein in the credits or any of the publicity. Gyllenhaal presumably read the book in English, not Italian, and yet the illusion of invisible translation must have been so complete that it simply didn’t register to her that the text had been mediated through a translator. This omission does not appear to have been malicious; when reminded by a letter to the New York Times from Mary Norris, who noted the irony that Gyllenhaal “made her main character a translator, but she overlooks the actual translator, without whom the film would not have been possible,” Gyllenhaal took to Instagram to thank the “brilliant” Ann Goldstein, “without whom none of this would be happening.” Yet Goldstein remains unmentioned in the film’s credits or on IMDb, an absence all the more galling due to publisher Europa Editions’ (who are prominently named in the film’s credits) nasty habit of refusing to let translators retain the copyright to their own translations

At the end of her letter, Norris reveals that Goldstein “was not in the least surprised to have been left out.” This feels symptomatic of the way many translators expect so little, because we have been trained by the industry not to want more. Sometimes this can lead to translators themselves devaluing the profession, in the vein of the Russian translator in Yoko Ogawa’s Hotel Iris (translated by Stephen Snyder) who claims it is “a simple sort of job, really. You sit at a desk all day long, looking up words in a dictionary.” Or, in a real world example, Tim Parks suggested in 2017 that translators don’t deserve royalties because translation “rarely requires a unique talent.” 

The diminishment of translators’ individuality, the implication that we are interchangeable, can have a flattening effect. When Janice Deul wrote in an op-ed that not commissioning a Black translator for the Dutch edition of Amanda Gorman’s poetry felt like a missed opportunity, the translation world exploded in uproar, with many (mostly white) translators twisting Deul’s words to imply she meant only Black translators could ever translate Black writers, missing the point later articulated in more detail by Haidee Kotze: “Gorman’s visibility, as a young Black woman, matters: She is part of the message. The choice of translator, in this case, is similarly part of the message. It’s about the opportunity, the space for visibility created by the act of translation, and who gets to occupy that space.” 

With each battle for greater visibility, some translators will argue that there are more important things to focus on. It is certainly true that there is much work to be done in many other areas (recently, for example, a literary agency that presents itself as a champion of translation and international literature informed me that they have a “blanket policy” of not paying translators for samples), but as Anton Hur points out, we can walk and chew gum at the same time—fight for better working conditions and more prominent acknowledgement, which goes towards building a readership of our own. In fact, these two goals are complementary, as greater visibility gives translators more leverage to ask for more, as well as helping us to find each other, and to form communities so we can tackle systemic problems together. In Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World, authors Winifred Poster, Marion Crain, and Miriam Cherry argue that even if workers “want to mobilize, the invisibility of their work—and in many cases, of the workers themselves—may make it difficult for them to gain political traction or support from consumers.” In sociology, invisible labor generally refers to the “second shift” of household work, but I agree with the authors above that the definition can be expanded, and certainly the argument they advance is relevant in many ways to literary translation, too. 

I can understand the appeal of wanting to appear effortless, of never being so gauche as to strive for recognition—but that is only possible in those who receive without asking. Alice Whitmore notes “the fact that [some white male translators] are capable of minimising their own work with such lucidity and authority suggests to me that these are… people who have never had their work minimised for them.” Similarly, in a defense of “all the strivers with no chill,” Elizabeth Spiers observes that the word “careerist,” used as an insult, invariably comes from those with “enough privilege that needing to work and worrying about advancement are alien experiences.” 

Why cling to a fantasy of a life free of struggle, when it holds us back from solidarity with others in our profession? This cynical desire for purity is a refusal to sully one’s hands, a form of gatekeeping. Like all artistic production, literary translation is labor, and should be treated as such. While freelance translators in the US are unable to unionize and hesitate to overtly discuss rates for fear of price-fixing laws, we do have access to resources such as the Author’s Guild translation model contract, which sets out working conditions that are or should be industry standard. One of this document’s architects, Alex Zucker, says, “I’d like to see more translators think of themselves as workers—again, as people who do a job to earn money—and of their work as labor, not only as art, which unfortunately in our society too often carries with it the expectation that it will be unpaid, or that money is not central.” 

What space is afforded to translators, and which translators are allowed to occupy space? Only with greater visibility will we be able to answer this question, shedding light on a field that has for far too long operated in the shadows. I hope we can focus on positive representations of translators (e.g., John Cho in Columbus, speaking his heritage language and agonizing dreamily over his editor’s deadlines) while pushing to improve working conditions and to enlarge the space that is available to translators, so that we may all be better seen.