Crossing Borders

Authors are hungry for translators and translators desperate for recognition. A new website attempts to align their desires.


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The Indian-born Dutch writer Ernest van der Kwast has published five books, including the 2010 novel Mama Tandoori, a bestseller in the Netherlands. Van der Kwast is young, darkly handsome, intensely funny, and in search of readers — well beyond the Dutch-speaking world. “You can say a book that has sold 80-90,000 copies should be translated into many languages,” he told me last week via Skype (van der Kwast speaks beautiful English).

Both Mama Tandoori and the more recent Giovanna’s Navel (published in its original form with the English title) were picked up by the Italian publisher Isbn Edizioni and translated by Alessandra Liberati (Isbn Edizioni also brought the book out in German, with a translation by Mare Verlag). Now van der Kwast is hunting for an American publisher. “The main goal,” he says, “is to win the Nobel Prize, but second best is being published in English.”

Van der Kwast is only half joking: translation is the urgent but widely unrecognized currency of the literary world. To be sure, ask me who I’ve been reading lately: Maureen Freely, Natasha Wimmer, Bill Johnson, Chris Andrews, James Anderson, Jessica Cohen, Rhett McNeil, Tim Wilkinson, Peter Theroux — but few of these names appear on the covers of the books.

And should they? When I read António Lobo Antunes’ haunting and strikingly lyrical Splendor of Portugal, do I hear Antunes’ voice or the translator McNeil’s? Undoubtedly, as a reader I desire an authentic experience. I want to be immersed in the cultural journey (and that book is one, to be sure), but I want to understand it too. I want to hear the music and the melancholy of the Portuguese just at the same time I’m well aware of reading English — and asking myself, “am I missing something here?”

Good translation is thus a rather magical sleight of hand. The translator has to force herself through genius and instinct to become invisible, a dangerous proposition in a media world that rewards those, most of all, who shout and strut.

Indeed, European presses particularly seem to view translators as hardly worthy of recognition — or compensation. “The problem in Italy is translation is so unrecognized we don’t get much money for the work we do, and anyone who is in the field would kill to translate a book, no matter how little they get paid,” says Cristina Vezzaro, a writer who translates prose and poetry from German and French into Italian (Vezzaro’s essay “Home Sweet Home” appeared last month in The Smart Set). Books like Mama Tandoori rarely present the name of the translator on the cover and Italian journalists and members of the media are unlikely to mention translators, even as they quote book passages from the Italian translation.

“In some countries the situation for translators is better than in others, but overall it is not yet common practice to always mention the translator’s name in combination with the title and the name of the author,” says Manon Smits, a Dutch translator. “I’ve seen plays based on my translation of a book where the publicity poster didn’t mention my name, I received an audiobook of a translation of mine that didn’t mention my name anywhere on the cover, and this list can go on forever.”

“Put three translators in a room together and it won’t be long before they’re bitching about critics who praised ‘the author’s magnificent language’ without mentioning their involvement,” says Katy Derbyshire, a Berlin-based British translator of German.

The sense of disappointment is palpable among translators in part because of the quite personal nature of the work. Literary translators have to understand the cultural underpinnings of both languages and they have to elicit the author’s voice, intended meaning, melody, rhythm, and sensibility. They have to understand the intricacies of place and time as well — and all this often requires research and travel and a kind of intimacy with the author.

“Translation has got something to do with techniques, of course. We know how to do our job,” says Vezzaro. “But literature has got to do with empathy, with our ability to feel and understand deeply what the author is trying to say.”

“’Why don’t you translate your own books?’ people ask me,” says van der Kwast. “But the question says something a about the way people view translators. They don’t know how difficult it is.”

“I really know the ins and outs of a book once I’ve translated it — translation entails such a close reading,” says Derbyshire. “I have a sense of the finished translation being partly my creation and partly the writer’s. Our baby, if you like, although the writer is very much the father and it’s me doing the nine-month gestation part. I feel terribly proud of these books and I love showing them off.”

But then, shouldn’t mothers get a little more respect?

In March, a novel Vezzaro had translated was being introduced to Italian readers and the novelist was going on tour. Vezzaro had come up with the Italian title, but her name didn’t appear on any of the publicity materials, and the publisher didn’t invite her to the readings — if she did show up, it would be on her own dime. Then the author went on Italian public radio for an interview on “the most established cultural radio program in Italy” and the journalist never mentioned Vezzaro or the translation and nor did the author, even when he was asked about the Italian title.

She was hurt and angry — for Vezzaro it felt like a kick in the gut. “Gosh, I am 40,” she wrote me in an e-mail that day. “I should be able to have a translation recognized for God’s sake.”

“But I thought, hey, instead of complaining to them (and we all have been complaining for years, in vain), let’s ask those who really appreciate our work to talk about it.” And so within days, she’d launched a new website: Authors and Translators, which uses the Q&A format to celebrate and explore the hidden intimacy between an author and her translators, and a translator and his authors. Vezzaro wasn’t shy about revealing translators’ frustration. Van der Kwast’s interview, which was done by Smits in Dutch and posted to the site on March 19, included this prod: “[P.S.: You can’t read Dutch? Next time you read a Dutch author in your language, remember the experience was made possible by a translator.]”

Vezzaro wanted to be sure her point was clear. “What would they do in Europe if no one translated books anymore? Literature is made by the people for the people. It is not an antiseptic process. And the translator is right in the middle between the author and the reader,” she says.

Perhaps because the site was exploring unspoken territory, it caught on immediately. Within in the first two weeks, thousands had clicked on, and Vezzaro was stunned. “The thing exploded in my hands,” she says. “This is something totally new for the public. Most people do not even realize a book is translated.”

“It’s good to have a place to raise our own voices, but what I find almost more exciting is reading what writers have to say about their translators,” says Derbyshire. “Because we don’t usually get direct feedback from the authors we translate, and everything they’ve said so far has been wonderful. It’s terribly flattering.”

While translators have probably found the most value from the site, Vezzaro thinks authors and publishers will benefit too by getting a taste for talented writers in other languages and for spotting translators who can carry out particular projects. Will this ultimately bring greater recognition and reward? Translators in the US and UK are the most likely to get their names on covers and they generally get paid better. And only some three percent of books are translated into English, meaning there is potential for substantial growth. But in Europe, says Derbyshire, a significant portion of the reading public is multi-lingual. “So they’re not as reliant on translators to get their fix,” she says. “People will dash out to buy Franzen in the original rather than waiting for the translation, which is becoming a problem for European publishers because they’re losing revenue.”

Nevertheless, among smaller nations with a shorter language range, translation remains a vital necessity. “Books in translation can change your life,” says van der Kwast. “How would it be to live in a country where you can only read what’s written is in your language? It would be like living with censorship.” • 3 May 2013 


Nathaniel Popkin's latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard. He is also the author of Song of the City, and The Possible City, and is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and co-producer and senior writer and editor of the documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment." Most of his work can be found at