Thursday, 9 April 2009

The List

Some time ago Eric posted a comment to this blog in which he outlined a list of points that reflect his views on the role of the literary translator. I added point 8, but essentially the other points are ones with which I'm in general agreement. I thought it might be worth reposting the list, as Nordic Voices has a few more readers now, some of whom are professional literary translators, and they may like to reflect on the contents of the list, and possibly even comment on it here. Also, with the approach of the London Book Fair, when translators will be contacting publishers and meeting with them, it occurs to me that publishers might also like to take a look at this (though probably most of them won't).

Eric wrote (and I added a point at the end):
1) The literary translator should be an ambassador of interesting serious literature written in the languages he or she has a good command of. By serious literature, I mean straightforward or experimental literature written to examine life, rather than make money.

2) The translator should not be the extended arm of the profits end of the publishing industry. I too will gladly accept subsidies, and even translate a crime novel when I need the money. But my real aim as a translator is to introduce interesting authors to an English-speaking readership.

3) For that reason, I feel that literary translators should cultivate tastes of their own, not merely wait for publishers to contact them and suggest assignments on a "take it or leave it" basis, with the hint that if they don't take this one, they will be regarded as belonging to the awkward squad.

4) Publishers should treat translators like normal clients or employees, not people who are called up in indecent haste to do a job, then dumped when a cheaper, or more docile, alternative comes along.

5) Translators should not be strung along. When you agree (by gentleman's agreement) to translate a book, the contract should be forthcoming within a shortish amount of time. No promises, followed by promises, and stretching over two years or more, should be made.

6) While I like conferences, receptions and workshops (not necessarily in that order, as Eric Morecambe and Lee Mack would say), the schmoozing aspect should not override the translation work itself.

7) Poetry should not eternally remain the poor relation to prose, in publishing terms. Those who naïvely think that poetry is easier to translate, just because it's shorter, will have another think coming, once they start doing some real translation work, as opposed to theorising about it.

8) Authors should not expect their translators to act as literary agents for them.
I'm particularly struck by points 4 and 5, and wonder whether anyone has some further thoughts on these difficult and thorny issues.


Eric Dickens said...

I still stand by what are now eight points. A translator should, ideally, be an independent go-between. There should be no undue pressure from either source- or target-language people to conform to the present canon or money-spinning fad. Whilst a translator should not necessarily seek out obscure writers just for the sake of it, translators are in a good position to expand the target-language readership's knowledge of any one country's literature. So that this goes beyond crime novels and a handful of poems in an anthology of "European Poetry in Translation", where two poems represent a poet who had been writing for forty years.

Although it is perfectly legitimate for some crime novels to be translated, British publishers should be persuaded not to put all their Scandinavian eggs in that basket. I object to the pressure from the publishing world to turn Scandinavia into a quarry or goldmine for lucrative crime-novels-in-translation, while general novels and monograph poetry collections are almost ignored.

Nor should too much emphasis be placed on the winner of some book prize or other, whether Nordic or British. Not only the runners-up and also-rans can be examined, but the never-rans. Book prizes tend to be something of a winner-takes-all enterprise, where the winner gets a hefty sum of money, and the runners-up, if they are lucky, get a little free publicity.

Book prizes are no substitute for a healthy book market, where translations are not either ignored or put on some hidden-agenda pedestal. The hidden agenda can be socio-political or financial.

David McDuff said...

Thanks, Eric, that's a good statement, and again I agree with nearly all of it. Re the last sentence: I can understand the financial part of the agenda, but what do you mean by "socio-political"?

Eric Dickens said...

By "socio-political", I simply mean that sometimes British publishers appear to be searching for literature to support and promote the latest liberation movement, gender angle, ethnicity, or similar, instead of publishing literature for its own sake.

As such publishers tend to have rather a fixed agenda, ultimately only literature that ticks the right boxes will be considered for publication. One man's national liberation struggle is another man's nationalist intolerance. Criteria for who is liberating themselves, and who is causing a nuisance, are not distributed equally across the spectrum of politics and social reform.

For instance, if I promoted my Estonian translations as "a successful anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist struggle by a small nation against overwhelming odds", I would, in these postcolonialist times, receive much praise. But when they find out who the colonialist oppressor has been, some people shy away from the truth...

David McDuff said...

Right! Thanks for explaining. There are indeed some books that are ignored by UK and American publishers on account of such considerations. I wonder, for example, what will happen in the case of Kaiken takana oli pelko? Is that due for release in English translation, do you know?

Michael Peverett said...

I'm hanging this query rather tenuously on Point 3, "Translators should cultivate tastes of their own"... The query is, can you tell me a simple way of ordering new books in Nordic languages and getting them delivered to my address in the UK? I expect the situation has changed, but a few years ago I always had to get them delivered to an address in Sweden and then sit there for up to a year until I came by...

Harry D. Watson said...

Eric, I know you have a bee in your bonnet about crime novels, which you seem to regard as being simply lucrative money-spinners for author and publisher alike - as distinct from serious literary novels .. but is that fair? Some critics - I don't necessarily agree with them, but they exist - have claimed Sjöwall & Wahlöö and Mankell, for instance, as trenchant critics of Swedish society, working through the medium of the crime novel to make their point about the shortcoming of Swedish society and the political elite.

Leaving Scandinavia aside for one moment, many people would argue - and here I DO agree with them - that the novels of for example Donna Leon and Michael Dibdin, apart from being good stories with believable characters and well-structured plots, offer a critique of Italian society as potent as the best investigative journalism.

And what is "Crime and Punishment" if not a psychological thriller?


David McDuff said...

Harry, you are welcome to include me among the ranks of those who have a bee in their bonnet about crime novels, for like Eric I truly deplore the way that in recent years the field of Scandinavian literature seems to have been corraled and closed off to the English-reading public by a one-sided emphasis on the Nordic crime genre - often to the exclusion of other kinds of writing.

Regarding Crime and Punishment: as many critics have pointed out, a thriller is precisely what it isn't. If one is to characterize it all - not an easy task - one can say that it's a metaphysical epic about a man's progress towards repentance and salvation, implemented with narrative techniques that were first developed by Edgar Allan Poe. In the hands of a great Russian novelist those techniques became a means of exploring some of the darkest sides of human nature. Above all, though, the book is the map of a progress - think Dante and Bunyan rather than Highsmith.

David McDuff said...

>>can you tell me a simple way of ordering new books in Nordic languages and getting them delivered to my address in the UK<<

Michael, I can tell you a way to get Finland-Swedish, Swedish and Finnish titles sent to the U.K. without too much trouble. It's one that has worked for me in the past, anyway. Send an email message to Akateeminen Kirjakauppa ( in Helsinki, using the email address - list the titles you want and they will normally reply within a few days with information about availability, mailing and costs. I've found this to be a more reliable way of buying books from Finland than using the online ordering system on the AK website, which hasn't usually worked for me, though your mileage may differ. Eric might have other suggestions.