Spokesperson, Intellectual, and… More? On the New and Shifting Role of the Translator
Lawrence Venuti Considers the “New Visibility” of Literary Translation
Recent controversies have brought an unusual amount of light—as well as heat—to the obscure field of literary translation. The most contentious episode occurred in 2021, when Amanda Gorman’s poem for the presidential inauguration, The Hill We Climb, set off a search for translators whose race and gender were thought to match the identity of the Black US poet.
Translators in the Netherlands and Catalonia withdrew under criticism or were rejected, while those hired in other European countries involved unexpected changes in publishing practices, including a multi-ethnic team for the German translation and hip hop artists for the French and Swedish versions. The dearth of black women translators was revealed, suddenly and starkly, provoking charges of systemic racism and measures to increase institutional diversity.
The result was a rancorous division of opinion: on the one hand, the commissioning was attacked for excluding translators on the basis of race when their work, by definition, aims to be inclusive of different cultures; on the other hand, the process was celebrated for giving access to translators who have long been denied work because of their race.
Remarkably, the controversy did nothing to illuminate what translators do or how they do it. On the contrary, the nature of their work was conceived along fairly old-school lines: publishers, agents, translators were collectively trying to insure that the author of the source text was transferred in the translation or, more precisely, that her racial and gender identity was preserved in a different language and culture.
And what about the translators’ role in all this? They were expected to match the poet in an acceptable way in order to… disappear, leaving no trace of their decisive intervention or of the linguistic and cultural differences they had to manage to translate the poem. If any such trace were detected, it would mean the translation was bad, not just an unconvincing stand-in for Gorman, but not Gorman herself.
Here the translator’s invisibility turns, at least partly, on finding a translating language that does not offend. According to the Dutch publisher of Gorman’s poem, Meulenhoff, agents who sold the translation rights required foreign publishers to vet their translations for insulting stereotypes and misrepresentations. The translator becomes unseen when a translation is free of awkward or taboo language, anything off-key enough to make readers conscious of reading a translation instead of the original. Readers want a translation to read as if it were a text written originally in the translating language—i.e., not translated.
This desire fetishizes originality and stigmatizes translation. A bumpy locution, especially with a canonical text, can provoke the fear that a translator has miscommunicated or contaminated it, gotten it wrong somehow, maybe deliberately, according to some hidden agenda or ideological slant. Treason, after all, is the hackneyed homonym for translation: traduttore traditore. A betrayal of the hallowed original—a translation, say, that travesties a national literary monument—coincides with treachery against the translating language, such as stylistic infelicity or so-called translationese.
The most important thing is to avoid any linguistic slip that would interrupt a vicarious reading experience, not just absorbed but unconscious, so that the reader succumbs to the illusion of transparent translation, direct access to the original. Every reader of a translation experiences this transparency for long stretches (even if some other kind of reading is also done—analytical, technical, comparative).
Translators themselves are complicit in creating the illusion, adept at writing with such fluency and familiarity as to efface their presence everywhere in the translation and make the original seem present. The original, however, is always elsewhere. And whatever the translator has done in its place remains undetectable.
Perversely resisting this status quo, I tend to be on the look-out for places where the translator is materializing, taking on a form or identity, visible but not imaginary, open to interpretive possibility. In the anglophone world, the start of the new millennium brought changes in publishing and award-giving that moved literary translation from the shadows, closer to the center of cultural and political debates. As a result, a more public role has been created for translators.
The most visible changes are trends in the publishing industry. During the past twenty-five years, the US and UK have witnessed a groundswell of small to mid-range presses that devote a significant part of their lists to translations of foreign literatures. Over twenty new presses have been launched, vastly different in size, scope, and resources, some non-profit, others trade. Among the more familiar names: And Other Stories, Archipelago, Fitzcarraldo Editions, New York Review Books, Open Letter, Pushkin Press, Tilted Axis. They join small literary presses that have been publishing translations from earlier in the previous century, like New Directions (founded in 1936), Carcanet (1969), and Dalkey Archive (1984).
A number of new awards have been instituted as if in recognition of this expansion in publishing activity. They include the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize (1999), the International Booker (2005), the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation (2017), and the Gregg Barrios Prize at the National Book Critics Circle (2022). The National Book Award, which added a category in translation during an earlier period of expansion (1967-1983), re-established it in 2018 as “translated literature” (a misnomer insofar as eligibility is limited to “fiction or nonfiction” and living foreign authors).
Long-standing awards that carry the most prestige also figure in the changes, signaling critical and commercial success. Fitzcarraldo Editions, which issues roughly twenty books a year, publishes four Nobel Laureates in English: Elfriede Jelinek, Svetlana Alexievich, Olga Tokarczuk, and Annie Ernaux.
The wave of new publishers doesn’t seem to have boosted the total volume of literary translations published each year. The Translation Database on Publishers Weekly lists fiction, poetry, children’s literature, and an uneven mélange of nonfiction (biography, memoir, history, theory). It indicates that since 2015 the average annual total for new translated titles has floated around 650.
In the US alone, however, several million books are published each year, including self-published material. Literary translations constitute a trickle in the ocean of print, despite the outsize attention they receive from reviews, awards, interviews, and social media.
Apart from the rare bestseller, sales of translations have never been especially robust either. In 2004 Christopher MacLehose, who directed Harvill Press from 1978 to 1999, observed that “the majority of even the finest books that are translated find their way to sales between 1,500 and 6,000.”
In 2021 Adam Levy, co-director of Transit Books, which publishes six to eight books a year, said that “a more realistic sales range for a given title might be between 1,500 and 3,000, though we’ve had books that have sold well above and below.” When such statements are juxtaposed to figures for US bestsellers, the whole question of marketability turns surreal: Stephen King’s latest novel, Fairy Tale (2022), sold over 600,000 within four months of publication.In the new visibility, the literary translator possesses a different sort of identity.
Occasionally translations hit the midlist in sales and a few even become bestsellers, sometimes propelled by film and video adaptations. New Directions has built readerships for distinguished contemporary fiction writers like Jenny Erpenbeck and Yoko Tawada, so that a translation of a new book by them might sell 15,000 soon after publication. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet of novels, translated between 2012 and 2014, have sold over three million copies for Europa Editions, according to editor-in-chief Michael Reynolds, who calls the figure “an anomaly.” Seventy percent of Europa’s translations fall beneath MacLehose’s upper limit of 6,000.
Literary translation remains an elite niche in anglophone publishing, relying sometimes on government funding agencies, both domestic and foreign, and supported by academic institutions, whether directly through textbook adoptions or more subtly by educating future readers of foreign literatures in translation. This situation raises the question of whether reading translations can be more than leisure time activity for the professional-managerial class, can actually intervene into current cultural and political debates.
Intriguing new publishing strategies are being developed, changing the ways that foreign literatures are read. Since translation removes a source text not only from its linguistic and cultural community but from its literature, from other texts in its language, a publisher can supply contexts to support the appreciation of new foreign writers, publishing more widely in a particular language than just a one-off work.
Chad Post, the director of Open Letter, invites translators to curate and then translate a selection of three texts from a foreign literature. The “triptych” offers a glimpse into a contemporary literary scene, increasing the impact of each work in translation. It also highlights the translator’s role (and responsibility) in creating a multi-dimensional image—of source texts, their authors, their cultures.
Katie Whittemore chose novels by three Spanish women to recreate their cultural network. “The writers and stories I was able to champion,” she explains, “were in conversation with each other and with other texts from other languages.” She sees the project as ”shaping a book’s reception, how it reads alongside or in contrast to.”
In the new visibility, the literary translator possesses a different sort of identity: still the articulate spokesperson for another language and culture, but self-conscious as an interpreter, at once scholarly and creative. The translator as writerly intellectual.
Translators have been authoring essays about their work, giving interviews, speaking in podcasts. The material has been printed in many different venues, academic and popular, print and electronic, including some heavily trafficked sites like Lit Hub, Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, Public Books, Words without Borders, and The Drift. There are even websites specific to translation in some way: translators write the reviews posted on Reading in Translation and engage in shoptalk on Hopscotch Translation.
Striking contemporary novels have fed this energy, for the most part, spotlighting translators’ work and at times redefining their reputations. Fernanda Melchor’s acclaimed Mexican noir about a transgender murder, Hurricane Season (2017), brought attention to the British-American slang and obscenity in Sophie Hughes’s translation. The celebrity of translating a bestseller like Elena Ferrante has turned Ann Goldstein into the leading interpreter of Italian prose in English, the go-to translator for women writers. Her recent work includes the post-WWII feminist avant la lettre, Alba de Céspedes, and the Italo-Latvian memoirist Marina Jarre.
There is also a new generation of classical scholars who translate and write about their translations for general readers. The notable successes—Emily Wilson’s Odyssey (2017) and Stephanie McCarter’s Metamorphoses by Ovid (2022)—combine academic research with an attentiveness to poetic style, interpreting canonical texts so as to foreground gender politics. Wilson’s Homer, now the authoritative version adopted in university-level Great Books courses, avoids “contemporary types of sexism” as manifested in “derogatory language” like “sluts” and “whores” (although put in the mouth of macho Telemachus they carry a certain truth to character). McCarter’s essay “Rape, Lost in Translation” (2018) links Ovidian sexual violence to the #MeToo movement. Her blistering critique of earlier English versions—Rolfe Humphries (1955), Mary Innes (1955), Horace Gregory (1958)—shows how they variously tone down or “euphemize” rape.
The most startling of the new developments may be the mushrooming of book-length commentaries on translation by professional translators, many with substantial lists of translations to their credit, working in various other capacities as academics, poets, fiction writers, editors. The books, at least ten over the past decade, all from trade presses, are quite different in form and theme. They range from David Bellos’s divertingly detailed Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (2011) to Kate Briggs’s Barthesian meditation, This Little Art (2017) to Polly Barton’s memoir of turning Japanese, Fifty Sounds (2021).
Translators have of course written about their work before. But it wasn’t till the 1950s that comparable books started to appear, usually edited volumes that gathered statements by writer-translators with academic papers. Reuben Brower’s On Translation (1959) proved to be a watershed collection where translation theorists (Roman Jakobson, Eugene Nida) rubbed shoulders with Kafka translators Willa and Edwin Muir and the Greek scholar Richmond Lattimore, whose 1951 Iliad had quickly become canonical. This sort of collection appeared periodically in the following decades, reflecting changes in the discourse on translation but limited in impact to academia.
Against this sparse backdrop, the recent outpouring of books by translators seems unprecedented, particularly in their diversity of style, genre, and argument. The new books are all monographs, with translators stepping into the role of author to talk about what they do.The translator becomes visible only in “slips of the pen.”
In the discourse about translation that currently streams through the internet, the translator’s task divides uneasily into two parts: an acute awareness that a translation must resemble the source text in meaning and style and at the same time an increasing insistence that a translation should offer a distinctive interpretation which is intelligible and interesting in the receiving culture. These attitudes look in opposite directions, potentially creating a conflict that is usually resolved by translating more freely. The freedoms, however, are not much discussed. McCarter views her version of Ovid as scholarship, poetry, and political activism all at once.
A similar sort of approach is driving the translation of modern works. In a Slate interview occasioned by his version of Kafka’s Diaries (2023), Ross Benjamin explains: “What I seek to bring out in any translation is what most strikes me in the original work as singular, important, appealing, exciting, or even strange and mystifying.” For Benjamin, what is “singular” about Kafka’s Diaries hinges on the image of the Czech writer created by Max Brod’s edition, which bowdlerized and planished the German text before it was translated into English in 1948 (by Joseph Kresh and Martin Greenberg with Hannah Arendt). Benjamin’s retranslation contests Brod’s edition by following the precise transcription of Kafka’s German that appeared in 1990 (eds Hans-Gerd Koch, Michael Müller, and Malcolm Pasley).
This edition, Benjamin notes, “leaves untouched the rough edges and idiosyncrasies of the writing—misspellings, sparse and unorthodox punctuation, slips of the pen, and occasionally muddled syntax.” A new Kafka emerges through a conflict of interpretations that had Benjamin “putting aside my demands for clarity and coherence” as an anglophone translator.
We have come full circle, returning to the point where I began, namely, that the translator becomes visible only in “slips of the pen.” In this instance, however, reviewers are not impugning the quality of the translator’s work but praising him for communicating the real Kafka, not only gloomy and tormented but prone to outbursts of laughter as well as visits to brothels, a compulsive diarist given to careless scribbling. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Benjamin thought his translation was “letting Kafka’s writing speak for itself.”
But is that what happened? What every linguistic peculiarity in Benjamin’s English shows us can’t be the real Kafka: we encounter them in English, after all. If we see Kafka, then it’s the translator too, his decision to recreate a later German edition. In Benjamin’s version, both translator and author are visible—and forever indistinguishable.