The Visible Translator

Bridgeman Images

A miniature by Yahya ibn Mahmud al-Wasiti: A Woman Visiting a Scribe, Persia, 1237

How much should we care about the identity of a translator? For many years, scholars of translation studies have called for translators to be more visible. Lawrence Venuti’s watershed book, The Translator’s Invisibility (1995), argued that the practice of ignoring the identity of the translator, to the point of being in denial that a work was even a translation at all, was part of an unhelpful hierarchical mindset that erroneously attributed absolute value to the original, ignoring the fact that each new translation was itself a new work of art. Venuti saw the vocation of the translator as both political and progressive, working in such a way as to take “the target language on…‘a line of escape’ from the cultural and social hierarchies which that language supports, using translation to ‘deterritorialize’ it.” This might be done in alliance with the original text, or in resistance to it. The thesis assumes a broad agreement that it is good to escape from cultural and social hierarchies and to “deterritorialize” our language, even if the translators’ hierarchies and language might be quite different from those which gave rise to the book they are translating.

The notion of “resistant” translation was taken up by a number of scholars proposing feminist readings of literary works. Emily Wilson described her 2017 translation of the Odyssey, the first of the entire poem into English by a woman, as “shining a clear light on the particular forms of sexism and patriarchy that do exist in the text.” In a case like this, where rather than, or as well as, offering a critique of a literary text in an introduction or footnotes, the translator consciously seeks to work in such a way as to point out unattractive aspects, a reader might feel it was useful to know who the translator was and where she was coming from.

In a review examining three translations of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Wilson herself indicated how important it was for her to know the identity of a translator, remarking that she was plunged into “gloom when I realized that two of [the translations] are by elderly white men, both emeritus professors, and the other is by a younger white man, not an academic.” Wilson concedes that it is “quite easy for anyone, from any social background or identity, to replicate the same tired old vision of the same old texts,” and “quite possible, in theory, for elderly white men to offer original ideas and fresh perspectives.” However, on looking at the translations in question, “the similarities between them, especially in the paratextual material, suggest a partial correlation between the translators’ social positions and their readings of the Oresteia.”

In short, as Wilson sees it, your background affects your translation. The implications are: first, that it is useful to know the identity of the translator; and second, that the field of classical retranslation would benefit from having more women and non-white translators. Wilson gives statistics showing white male dominance in the field of classical translations; when it comes to the translation world more generally, dominance is no doubt white but hardly male.

Aside from any politically charged considerations, it has been evident over recent years that more foreign fiction is now being published and translators are getting more visibility. The International Booker Prize for the best work of fiction in translation now awards equal amounts of money (£25,000, or about $35,000) to the author and to the translator. Prizes specifically for translators have multiplied. There are prizes for young translators and prizes for women translators. The unusual case of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonym for the anonymous Italian author whose hugely successful novels have been “fronted,” as it were, at promotional events by their English-language translator Ann Goldstein, has also led to the reading public’s becoming more aware of the figure of the translator. Similarly, the controversy surrounding Deborah Smith’s translation of Han Kang’s prizewinning novel The Vegetarian intensified debate over the kinds of liberties translators might take when translating. (Interestingly, Goldstein and Smith take quite opposite approaches to their craft—Goldstein opting for a strict adherence to the letter and syntax of the original, Smith boldly declaring that “‘faithfulness’ is an outmoded, misleading and unhelpful concept when it comes to translation.”) In any event, no literary festival is now complete without discussions of translation, which are usually well attended.

It is into this exciting, sometimes turbulent scene that news came that two European translators commissioned to translate the work of the young black American poet Amanda Gorman (who famously read at President Biden’s inauguration ceremony) had subsequently either renounced the commission or had it withdrawn over issues of identity. Though both white, the two translators could hardly be more different. The Dutch writer and would-be translator Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, aged twenty-nine, won the International Booker Prize last year for a first novel, The Discomfort of Evening, which, as the New York Times reviewer put it, “teems…with all the filth of life.” Identifying as nonbinary and rejecting masculine and feminine pronouns, preferring to be addressed as they/them, Rijneveld was a highly visible figure to line up with Gorman’s poems, albeit one without, as far as I have been able to find, any published translations to their name. They chose to withdraw from the project following criticism by the journalist Janice Deul, who suggested that an opportunity had been missed to choose a “spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black.”


The other translator in this case, Victor Obiols, is an established Catalan poet, sixty years of age, whose well-respected translations include works by Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, and Walter de la Mare, as well as a range of books on blues, jazz, and rock, graphic novels, children’s novels, and much else. He was taken off the job of translating Gorman because, in his words, the publishers, or perhaps the author’s agent, “were looking for a different profile, which had to be a woman, young, activist and preferably black.” And he added:

If I cannot translate a poet because she is a woman, young, black, an American of the twenty-first century, neither can I translate Homer because I am not a Greek of the eighth century BC. Or could not have translated Shakespeare because I am not a sixteenth-century Englishman.

It is not easy to discuss this thorny question without being drawn into a fiercely polarized debate. Clearly, translation has a vocation to overcome barriers—as Paul Auster put it, “Translators are…the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.” Barriers of any kind sit uneasily with such aspirations. And yet…

Let me draw on my own experience to offer a way of thinking about this. Having arrived in Italy when I was twenty-five, I began translating a couple of years later, mainly commercial and technical material of every kind. Often, I felt I was the wrong person for the job: I struggled with the terminology of dentistry and stone-quarrying, the elaborate syntax of Italian art critics, the purple prose of tourist brochures, the protocols of legal contracts. When I broke into literary translation, it was thanks to an issue of identity. A fellow Italian–English translator, Isabel Quigley, found herself uncomfortable translating some pages of Alberto Moravia’s La cosa that she regarded as obscene. Not wishing to be identified with this material, she dropped out. The publishers needed a translator in a hurry, I was available, and I had no objection to the novel’s sex scenes.

Later, though, I would turn down books that I felt demanded styles of writing, in English, which were simply “not me”; I couldn’t do them. There was a novel by the gay author Aldo Busi, The Standard Life of a Temporary Pantyhose Salesman, whose intensely camp, baroque Italian I couldn’t imagine reproducing in English. And there was a wonderful bildungsroman by Enrico Brizzi, Jack Frusciante Has Left the Band, that would have required me, now long out of Britain, to produce a couple of hundred pages of teenage urban slang. In each case, I declined the assignment not over issues of identity but over questions of style. I enjoyed reading both Busi’s and Brizzi’s Italian, and they conveyed their worlds very powerfully to me. That is what literature does. I just felt that I hadn’t the right instruments in English.

On the other hand, I did translate Giuliana Tedeschi’s There Is a Place on Earth: A Woman in Birkenau. This harrowing memoir of a year in a Nazi concentration camp focused very much on the female body, the loss of the menstrual cycle, the fear of never being able to have children, and much else that was painful to contemplate. I also translated Fleur Jaeggy’s Sweet Days of Discipline, a first-person account of a thwarted lesbian love in a girls’ boarding school. At no point was I concerned that I couldn’t deliver faithful versions of these women’s stories: however far out of my range of experience, they were written within a literary tradition I recognized. It was a question of finding the same tones of voice, the same cadences, the same lexical range in English, after which the words, I thought, could be trusted to do the rest. The sample translations I sent to editors, male and female, were immediately approved and eventual reviews of the finished work were favorable. Jaeggy’s novel in particular would achieve a certain celebrity.


However, two events suggested that even back then, in the 1990s, identity issues in translation were becoming important. When I sent a sample translation of some pages of Le confessioni di una piccola italiana, an anonymous account of a young girl’s experience under fascism, to the Women’s Press in England, suggesting they might want to publish the book, I was told they loved what they had read, but that, as a man, I wasn’t a suitable translator. Conversely, the writer Oriana Fallaci specifically asked her publisher to invite me to translate her novel Inshallah. She urgently wanted, I was told, a “very male author” as its translator. How had she got this impression of me? What difference could it make to her book that I was a man? As it happened, I had already tried reading Inshallah and given up, finding the style unpleasantly emphatic. We were not made for each other.

One other anecdote before drawing some conclusions. For twenty or so years, I taught a translation class at postgrad level in Milan. From time to time, I would ask my Italian students to translate, among parts of many other books, the opening pages of Confessions of a Beauty Addict, a charming, unashamedly “chick-lit” novel by Nadine Haobsh. It begins with a hilarious account of a hair-dyeing catastrophe. There is much technical detail. My class always comprised at least 90 percent women. Yet I remember one occasion when it was a quiet boy who produced the version that had the whole group rocking with laughter and shouting “Right!” and “Perfect!” “How did you do it?” one young woman demanded. “I listened,” he said, “in my head, to my sister, in the bathroom.”

So where does this leave us vis-à-vis the European translators of a young black woman poet? Listening again to Amanda Gorman’s performance at Biden’s inauguration, one is struck by the broad public sweep of her work. The words she uses, at least in this poem, are mainstream, the rhetoric recognizably within an American tradition. The title, “The Hill We Climb,” is immediately familiar as an analogy. She wants everyone to understand. At the same time, the poem’s strong slam rhythms, coming in rising and falling waves, with frequent internal rhymes, repetitions, and plays of assonance are strong, effective, unmistakable. It would be an interesting experiment to get a group of, say, Italian translators, all with some experience of writing or translating poetry, but of different ages, ethnicities, and genders, and invite them to submit versions that the publisher could then consider without knowing their authors. I suspect it might be hard to guess who had done what. The success of each version would depend on the experience—of life, language, and literature—that each translator could bring to the work. And, of course, on their resourcefulness and creativity in Italian. Certainly, one could arrive at a strong version that way.

But I’m not sure that this is what the publishers or literary agents want, or what they’re concerned about. Translators have sought greater visibility, and now they must live with what they wished for. The Dutch publishers chose a very visible figure as translator, but the ensuing controversy suggested this was the wrong kind of visibility, that it might be important to have someone more clearly aligned, as it were, with Gorman’s particular background and project. That way, poet and translator—both young, black, female—could present the work together and no one would think of the poems as having been hijacked or appropriated, perhaps, by some “resistant” translator with a more privileged background. There is a persuasive logic to such thinking, not least at a promotional level, though you have to wonder to what lengths the approach might be taken. Would it be necessary to find a nonbinary translator for Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s work?

I doubt that any employment category is more willing to welcome a broad ethnic mix than literary translators. But for my part, I do not believe this kind of writer-translator identity alignment, with all the limitations it would impose, is a helpful way either of advancing that cause or of giving us the best translations. If nothing else, it would profoundly skew the nature of the job. When I translate another writer’s work, I have no desire to stand in for that author, or be part of the story; I simply do all I can to reconstruct the writing successfully in English. And when my own novels are translated, usually by women, it never crosses my mind to ask about those translators’ backgrounds or wonder if there might be something irreducibly male about my writing that they cannot deliver. They are professionals, and I trust them to do their job. That is the writer-translator relationship that offers the best way forward for all.

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