Credit Where It's Due


Does anyone really know or care what the original language of a work was? There are actually quite a number of works translated from other languages into English, and in many cases (especially in the US) it doesn't actually say anywhere whether it was translated or not. The translator's name may be listed once inside, in small print, or not at all.
As someone who has made a living out of translation for over 25 years, this is rather distressing, to say the least...

Thinking back on it now, I realize that an awful lot of my first books were translated into English. As soon as my parents stopped trying to force me to read, I began reading by myself, and it didn't take me long to move from the kid's room to the adult section of the library. Even so, some of the very first books I read by myself were imported: The Wonderful Adventures Of Nils by Selma Lagerlof and the great Finn Family Moomintroll series by Tove Jansson, to name two right off the top. Both still on my shelf, too.

No doubt many of you knew they were translated, but did you realize that when you read them years ago? Sure, I knew Moomintroll came from Finland, but I don't think I knew it was written in Finnish until many, many years later. And the only reason I knew Nils was from the Swedish is because I happened to live in Sweden when I was about six, and my parents made a point of telling me. My parents had a fair number of "adult" books that I read, too, like The Iliad and The Odyssey, both translated by the superlative Robert Fagles (who, by the way, passed away on March 26 2008, at the age of 74), and Nikos Kazantzakis' masterpiece The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel. Kazantzakis himself was also a translator of note, as it happens.

The problem persists, of course. Many American publishers (and possibly others; I mention American because that's what I'm familiar with) believe that the buying public will be put off by books translated from other languages, and hide the translator's name on the copyright page in the fine print. Kawabata Yasunari won the Nobel Prize in Literature, but I'm confident that a lot of the glory was earned by his translator, and if you don't know who that was perhaps you're reading the wrong blog.

I think the situation is changing slowly, though. Every so often an author comes along who combines excellent writing with an in-the-footlights homeland. One example is Zoran Živković of Serbia. I happened to pick up a copy of his Seven Touches of Music, translated by Alice Copple-Tošić, and absolutely fell in love. The man is a genius, and apparently I am not the only one to notice, because a variety of his material is being published here and there in English. I was intrigued to note that the English translation mentions, for example "Mrs. Martha," and wonder if Martha is her first name, last name, a name made up by the translator, or what... In Japan I am commonly called "Edward-san," apparently because foreigners in Japan are always named in that fashion without regard for surnames or the fact that it seems to violate Japanese custom. Does the same custom exist in Serbia?

What about a few books translated from the Japanese? Yoshimoto Banana's Hardboiled and Hard Luck lists the translator on the cover, but Kitchen does not. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami doesn't mention the translator, and neither does The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Or what about one of my favorites (in Japanese), Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind? Nope, just looking at the cover you'd think Miyazaki wrote it in English.

In Japan, however, the situation is quite different. Readers here know that these books weren't written in Japanese, and in fact often buy unknown authors because the translator has a good reputation. There is an awareness among the readership that the new David Brin novel is hot not only because of what Brin wrote, but also because it was translated by someone who can really make Japanese sing the way it's supposed to. The cover of volume two of Brin's Heaven's Reach is representative of the way it's done, and displays the translator's name, Sakai Akinobu, proudly (click on the book cover for a magnified view).

It sure would be nice if English-language publishers would get the idea and begin crediting their translators, too. After all, the United States is merely one of a heck of a lot of countries, and in spite of what my third-grade teacher felt, there is a lot of literature out there worth reading that isn't in English.


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