Can you imagine how it must feel to spend weeks, months or even years finding just the right words to tame your thoughts onto a page, only to have someone else completely rewrite those words? And in a way that you, the owner of those thoughts, will never truly grasp? This is what happens when an author is granted an elusive foreign book deal, and with it, sees their work in translation.
Many writers are understandably thrilled by the whole process. Meg Cabot, for example, offers an amusing insight when she described opening her mail to find the latest translated edition of one of her books, with its unrecognisable cover art and not even a cover note to let her know which language it was in. Meg Gardiner is delighted by how even her name changes on the cover of her books in Czech.
Others are disappointed that their foreign covers seem to be completely unrelated to their book’s content, sometimes to the point of being misleading. Trudi Canavan explains how frustrating it is to have so little imput into the artwork on her foreign book covers, yet also acknowledges that it is job of the overseas publisher, not the author, to understand how best to market the book in their particular market.
There are even a couple of interesting collections by fans of American authors, in particular. For example, an excellent study of Gore Vidal‘s foreign covers, and a beautifully catalogued collection of Jack Kerouac‘s On The Road.
The heady heights of a foreign book deal is clearly the ultimate dream for many authors. Yet the artwork on the book cover is often an author’s only insight into the way their labour of love might be perceived by readers with a whole other set of cultural, social and linguistic frameworks. Because when you read a translation, you’re not reading the words of the author. You are reading the words of the translator who has tried to re-write the thoughts of that author in a way that you, the reader, will understand. It’s not surprising that so many English–speaking authors comment on the foreign covers of their novels, yet as fellow wordsmiths, it’s also disappointing to see how many of them fall into the trap of using this as a means to judge the quality of the translation within.
Authors with foreign book deals are often asked by less experienced authors whether they worry about the quality of their translations. Because without a knowledge of the foreign language that at least equals your knowledge of English, how on earth can you judge, right? But here’s the catch – there is no way to know, not really. An element of blind faith on the side of the client is often inherent in the translation process, which is why you have to be very, very sure you can trust your translator.
One of the most insightful pieces I’ve seen by an author on the reality of a foreign book deal is by Janet Berliner over at Storytellersunplugged. Her comments on translation are all the more credible because it’s clear that her linguistic background extends beyond a couple of years of high-school French. Here’s an author who genuinely understands the lot of the literary translator.
My advice to authors would be to take an interest in the translation process from the beginning. Make yourself available to your translators and answer their questions – and if your translator is not asking you questions, ask why. This is the single biggest thing you can do to influence your translation for the better. In fact, insist on being involved, because no-one knows the meaning behind your words better than you. And it is this meaning, as much as the words themselves, that a translator has to translate.
Image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr