On September 10, 2021, translator Jennifer Croft—best known for her achievement of translating the works of Polish Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk—wrote an article in The Guardian, succinctly titled “Why translators should be named on book covers.” In the article, she speaks about a strange phenomenon in the realm of literature: translators are simply never acknowledged in any significant way. “Since the 2016 launch of the [International Man Booker Prize],” she notes, “not one of the six winning works of fiction has displayed the translator’s name on the front. Granta didn’t name Deborah Smith there; Jonathan Cape didn’t name Jessica Cohen; Fitzcarraldo didn’t name me; Sandstone Press didn’t name Marilyn Booth; Faber & Faber didn’t name Michele Hutchison. At Night All Blood is Black by David Diop, 2021’s winner from Pushkin Press, doesn’t name Anna Moschovakis on its cover, although its cover does display quotes from three named sources. Four names, in other words, on the cover of a book Moschovakis wrote every word of. But her name would have been too much.”
Croft points out the lamentable experience of the translator, whose name is omitted at every single chance. To those unfamiliar with literature in translation, such omission might make sense. After all, the translator isn’t the author, per se. It’s the author’s book, not the translator’s. One might add that the translator is just a medium, through which the original essence of the author’s work might carry through.
To what extent should the translator’s presence be visible on the page? Should the translator enjoy as much recognition as the original author, or should they be tucked away somewhere hidden, lest their presence serves to undermine the “authenticity” of the author’s work? These are questions translators—and the publishing world—have been asking for a long time, though nowhere near enough.
In the first chapter of his groundbreaking book of theory The Translator’s Invisibility, writer, translator, and theorist Laurence Venuti struggles to make sense of these questions, examining the historical and political forces that have shaped the world of literature and translation to see if there are any other ways translators can imagine their role as. The book is aptly titled, and so is the first chapter—“Invisibility”; the cold, hard truth is that translators are effectively effaced from their work, that is how it has always been, at least, in the Anglophone hemisphere.
Venuti first starts by noting how historically grounded these questions are: that the invisibility of the translator is not a natural human inclination, but rather, a politically induced one. The world of Anglophone literature, Venuti claims, is grounded in a historical movement towards erasing the presence of the translator in literature. Such erasure comes hand-in-hand with the readers’ expectations for fluency. Venuti offers a “selection of excerpts… from various British and American periodicals” that contextualizes the Anglophone love for fluency and naturalness:
It is not easy, in translating French, to render qualities of sharpness or vividness, but the prose of Mr. Gilbert is always natural, brilliant, and crisp. (Wilson 1946: 100)
Rabassa’s translation is a triumph of fluent, gravid momentum, all stylishness and commonsensical virtuosity. (West 1970: 4)
Helen Lane’s translation of the title of this book is faithful to Mario Vargas Llosa’s – “Elogio de la Madrastra” – but not quite idiomatic. (Burgess 1990: 11)
The translation by Frank Wynne is fluent and natural-sounding, though I notice that Wynne has now and then clouded the clarity of the cranky ideas. (Berman 2000: 28)
The English language adheres so much to this sense of naturalness and fluency that we have devised new terms to describe writing we associate with translation—“translationese”—which we use to describe clunky, unnatural, unidiomatically written sentences.
Why is this? Is it a natural human desire to weed out foreign-sounding phrases in our speech and language, or have we been socially conditioned to do so? Venuti advocates for the latter: “the dominance of fluency in English-language translation reflects comparable trends in other cultural forms, including other forms of writing… [Western] developments have affected every medium, both print and electronic, by valorizing a purely instrumental use of language and other means of representation and thus emphasizing immediate intelligibility and the appearance of factuality” (5). Contemporary English-language translation stems from his history of international development and the U.S. and U.K’s position as world powers, exerting a uniform, imperialistic language. Any form of unnatural English is a subversion of that ideological notion of America, and thus, must be quashed.
There is also another reason why fluency is valued so much: British and American cultures place a heavy emphasis on “the individualistic conception of authorship” in which “the author freely expresses his thoughts and feelings in writing, which is thus viewed as an original and transparent self-representation” (6). Compare this to the translator’s work: “translation is defined as a second-order representation: only the foreign text can be original, an authentic copy… whereas the translation is derivative, fake, potentially a false copy” (6). Translators approach their work, hence, with a degree of suspicion: am I a fake? Is what I do less important than the author’s work?
What is worse is that all these antiquated worldviews on translation versus original are backed by the legal system; our “shadowy existence in British and American cultures in further registered, and maintained, in the ambiguous and unfavorable legal status of translation, both in copyright law and in actual contractual arrangements.” In the face of the law, translators are secondary to the author, who retains all copyright of all transmutations of their work in translation. According to the Berne Convention, the author is the only one who can “enjoy the exclusive right of making and of authorising the translation,” and any kind of translations are adoptions, “protected as original works without prejudice to the copyright in the original work”—held by the author.
Such lack of protection leaves translators in an abysmal place; their visibility, or lack thereof, within legal and cultural spaces, actively drives them out. Not protected by law, translators are subject to subpar conditions: “below-subsistence fees force them either to translate sporadically, while working at other jobs… or to undertake multiple translation projects simultaneously” (10). And even then, the fees are abhorrent: according to research, freelance literary translators can’t even make enough to make the cut for the poverty level. Because such a situation “drives freelance translators to turn out translations as quickly as humanly possible… it inevitably limits the literary invention and critical reflection applied to a project, while pitting translators against each other—often unwittingly—in the competition for projects and the negotiation of fees” (10).
Other countries have it slightly better. According to Venuti’s research, Italian publishers published a total of 12,531 works of translation in 2002, which makes up 22.9% of the entire body of published books of that year. German publishers published 5,406 works of translation in 2004, at 7.3%. American publishers, however, published a measly 4,040 translations in 2004 at 2.07%, which is still better than the British in 2001: 1.4%.
Venuti is seriously concerned about this: these statistics not only show the failings of the American and British publishing world to fully embrace translated works as valid forms of literature. Rather, there’s a more sinister force at work, as Venuti claims that “these translation patterns point to a trade imbalance with serious cultural ramifications” (11). The U.S. and the U.K. rarely buy rights to publish English-language translations but sell many translation rights for English-language books, and the results are astonishing:
By routinely translating large numbers of the most varied English-language books, foreign publishers have exploited the global drift towards American political and economic hegemony since World War II, actively supporting the international expansion of British and American cultures. British and American publishers, in turn, have reaped the financial benefits of successfully imposing English- language cultural values on a vast foreign readership, while producing cultures in the United Kingdom and the United States that are aggressively monolingual, unreceptive to foreign literatures, accustomed to fluent translations that invisibly inscribe foreign texts with British and American values and provide readers with the narcissistic experience of recognizing their own culture in a cultural other. (12)
The hegemony of English literature all over the world—and the reactionary movement towards domesticated work and fluency—is directly connected to the cultural, military, political, and economic power of the Anglophone sphere. Everything must be translated, not just in words, but in message and meaning, into a certain Anglophone structure and philosophy. The dissemination of English-language works is universally accepted and widespread, whereas the influx of foreign literature into the Anglophone world is heavily policed and gatekept. Venuti puts it more succinctly when he says: “the translator’s invisibility is symptomatic of a complacency in British and American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described—without too much exaggeration—as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home” (13).
Venuti speaks more in the chapter about how translators can aim to combat such forces in their work by utilizing, namely, foreignization, which Venuti explains to be “a form of resistance against ethnocentrism and racism, cultural narcissism and imperialism, in the interests of democratic geopolitical relations” (16). For Venuti, foreignizing translation doesn’t mean that the translation is necessarily unreadable; rather, it’s a more deliberate, thoughtful process of translating in which—in the spirit of resistancy—it tries to avoid the narrow kinds of fluency that have long dominated English-language translation” and “challenges the receiving culture even as it enacts its own ethnocentric violence on the foreign text” (18). In doing so, the translator can not only explore outside the bounds of what we consider to be fluent English; moreover, we can formulate new ways in which we can balance legibility and foreignization, making for a richer, more unfamiliar text.
Going back to Jennifer Croft’s article, we better understand the anger of translators in their erasure. The invisibility of the translator is largely a systemic, structural issue, a subjugation, of sorts, of the translator’s autonomy and subjectivity by legal, cultural, political, and historical forces in the making. When Croft says that translators must be recognized and rendered visible, they are actively fighting against this history and system of subjugation, which ultimately affects not only the translators’ livelihoods, but even more so the countries outside of the United States, caught in a hierarchy and imbalance of linguistic trade.
How does any of this relate to the work we do as in-house or freelance translators working with localization agencies? Unlike literary translators, this notion of the invisibility of the translator affects us only partially; localization specialists and linguists work with both literary (or at least, creative) texts and technical ones. Venuti clarifies that the invisibility of the translator affects mainly literary or “humanistic translation,” not because it is more important, but because “it has long set the standard applied in technical translation (viz. fluency), and, most importantly for present purposes, it has traditionally been the field where innovative theories and practices emerge” (34). It’s not that literary genres are better, or that literary translators have it worse and are more affected by these issues mentioned above. Simply put, technical translation is, in itself, a byproduct of the kind of military, scientific, political forces and is simultaneously constrained by them: technical translation is directly related to “multinational corporations” that “seek the expansion of foreign markets and the creation of overseas workforces and thus increasingly require fluent, immediately intelligible translations of international treaties, legal contracts, technical information, and instruction manuals” (34).
In that sense, non-literary translators—or rather, translators that don’t work with literature directly—are exempt, when working on technical translations, from this work of resistancy. However, it’s difficult to deny that even technical translations—save for the most scientific, legal, or technical of them—offer a little leeway for creativity, provided it doesn’t deter the accuracy of the information to be translated. Everything, in a way, is imbued with the element of politics, culture, and history. Computer manuals, for example, still utilize the master-slave dichotomy; international legal documents still reference colonial terminology. These kinds of matters require the translator to make a conscious, deliberate choice about how they translate. And these kinds of matter—these are the questions that we, as translators, must face and answer.
Venuti, L. (2018). The translator’s invisibility: A history of translation. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.