The Peculiar Thrill of Seeing One’s Words: A Conversation with Mark Haddon on Translator Names on Book Covers

October 27, 2021

“For too long, we’ve taken translators for granted,” begins an open letter by Jennifer Croft (translator of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s International Booker Prize–winning novel Flights) and Mark Haddon (author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). “Translators are the life-blood of both the literary world and the book trade which sustains it. They should be properly recognised, celebrated and rewarded for this. The first step towards doing this seems an obvious one.”

In this letter, published on the website of the United Kingdom’s Society of Authors, Croft and Haddon called on writers to ask their publishers to give translators cover credits. To date, the letter has received over 2,000 signatures, including from such authors as Tokarczuk, Valeria Luiselli, Alexander Chee, Bernardine Evaristo, Sarah Waters, Preti Taneja, and Katie Kitamura. “Putting our names on the covers of the books we wrote every word of takes two seconds and zero dollars,” letter co-author Croft said to Publishers Weekly. “Why not make that change?”

I wrote to Mark Haddon to ask him more about his co-authored letter (which you can sign here), and the work ahead for appropriately shining a light on literary translation.

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NATHAN SCOTT MCNAMARA: Why do you think it isn’t yet intuitive and automatic for many publishers to credit translators on book covers right alongside the authors?

MARK HADDON: Precedent, mostly, I suspect. Organizations, like individuals, instinctively dislike change and will come up with any number of reasons to make their resistance seem reasoned. I’ve heard a range of responses from publishers in the last few weeks: that it will make covers look untidy; that it will confuse readers; that they will then have to pay translators more; that authors won’t like it. The last was particularly laughable given that it was a response to an open letter from over 2,000 authors.

Perhaps a better question is to ask why the voices of translators asking for change are so often ignored. My suspicion is that sexism plays a part. The majority of literary translators are women while the majority of works translated are by men. It’s no surprise that translation is seen as a service industry rather than an art form.

Should we put cover-designers’ names on the covers of books? What about editors? Are translators the only addition, or might a book cover look something more like a movie poster to include the community involved in creating books?

It’s all too easy to get drawn into answering this question literally but I’m going to resist because it’s just tactical whataboutery by publishers. Cover designers and editors aren’t asking to be on the covers of books. Translators areasking to be on the cover. And now authors are asking on their behalf as well. Whenever the powers-that-be say, “If you we give this to you, then everyone will want it,” you know they’re low on ammunition.

What was the first book you read where you became aware of and started to think about the role of the translator in handling the language you were reading?

I took an A Level in Ancient Greek in my 30s. If I’d taken the exam at 18 I’d have simply “learnt the translation” of the required passages from the Odyssey and Euripides’s Bacchae. As an adult motivated by genuine interest rather than the need to minimize my effort I spent a lot of time looking at as many reputable translations as I could find and found myself immersed for the first time in the mechanics of moving a text between two languages.

What makes reading translations of classical texts particularly fascinating is not just the number and variety available but the historical range. Put George Chapman’s Homer alongside Richmond Lattimore’s and it’s obvious that a translator can never transcend their own cultural milieu. The seeming transparency of some really good translations — the sense that one is reading the original — is always a paradoxical sleight of hand.

My latest favorite classical translation is Emily Wilson’s version of the Odyssey. And therein lies a very telling detail. The first line of the poem describes the eponymous hero as ἄνδρα … πολύτροπον, meaning literally a man of many turns or thereabouts. It is usually translated, flatteringly, as a resourceful man or a man of many wiles or, as Pope has it, a man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d. Wilson translates the phrase as a complicated man and with that single word she announces to the reader that here — finally! — is a female translator who is not going to shy away from the moral difficulties of a poem about a man who is not just a warrior, an adventurer, and a lover but also a cold-blooded murderer.

Never underestimate how much turns on the translation of a single word.

A colleague who only spoke English once said to me he did not feel comfortable reading, say, Dostoyevsky in English because how could he be sure he was actually reading Dostoyevsky? What would you have said to this knucklehead?

I confess to being something of a knucklehead myself in that respect. As both a writer and a reader I am obsessed with word-by-word architecture of sentences. Consequently my copies of favorite novels are filled with asterisks and underlinings and I am prone to remember sublime passages in a novel but forget the plot. So when I am utterly transported by Olga Ravn’s The Employees, translated by Martin Aitken, or David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, translated by Anna Moschavakis (to pick just two recent favorites), I am aware that I can’t watch the author choosing this word, then the next word, then the next which, for me, is one of the great joys of reading; but I am therefore doubly pleased when I am swept away by the choices made by the translators.

Do you think translators deserve a portion of royalties and subsidiary rights for the books they translate?

In some cases, yes, very much, so. But, conversely, there are countries where translation of many mass-market titles is done by committee on something closer to a factory model. Where the line should be drawn between translation deserving of royalties and translation for which a flat fee would be more appropriate is a puzzle to be solved by more knowledgeable people than me.

Does it take some faith from you as a writer when your books are translated into languages you don’t speak? What does it feel like to hold your work in a language you don’t know?

It would be a rare and foolish writer who turned down the possibility of a whole new community of readers for fear that the quality of the translation was poor. How, in any case, would you find out? If you are that precious about your reputation and sufficiently fluent in the language you should perhaps translate the work yourself.

That said, I do slightly regret having given the go-ahead to a translation of my poetry collection The Talking Horse and the Sad Girl and the Village Under the Sea into a language I won’t mention here. The first poem, Go Litel Bok (itself an untranslatable quotation from Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde), purports to be a badly translated thank you speech for a literary award and was inspired by an interview at a book festival where the translator had gone AWOL and we had to rely on a plucky but not very skilful member of the audience.

[…] a flex is run from our hearts into the hearts
of those who do not know the meaning of the words
cardigan or sleet. And there is no finer pudding.
Now I am like the cow from the nursery rhyme […]

I shudder to think how that reads in the unmentioned language.

Putting aside that one exception, I have always got great pleasure from seeing copies of my work in other languages, a pleasure usually in direct proportion to the unexpectedness of the translation, the smallness of the book market in which it will be read, and (forgive my parochialism) the obscurity of the resulting text. Yes, it’s wonderful to see The Porpoise in French (L’odyssée du marsouin, translated by Odile Demange) but it will never quite match the peculiar thrill of seeing one’s words in the Armenian or Kazakh alphabet. Or indeed receiving a box of biscuits and copies of my play Polar Bears in Farsi sent from Tehran by Judoka, soi-disant Dudeist, Jeff Bridges afficionado, and translator, Hamid Dashti …

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Nathan Scott McNamara is a nonfiction and fiction writer whose work has also been published at The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Poetry Foundation, Literary Hub, and more.