Ask a Translator with Daniel Hahn

I’d much rather they stuck J.K. Rowling’s name on my book than insisting on mine. We might even sell a few copies.

Our resident translation expert Daniel Hahn is back with a response to the hotly debated issue of how and where to credit translators’ work. This question comes from Michelle Loh in Singapore.  

Why aren’t translators’ names on most book covers? Are you for or against this practice of keeping translators’ names hidden?

Some people believe that readers are scared of translations. They assume—whether rightly or wrongly—that a reader is more likely to pick up a book whose front jacket reads

Title of Great Novel!



than a book whose front jacket reads

Title of Great Novel!


Name-Of-Awesome-Novelist, but actually not really because I’m afraid it’s been translated by Unrecognisable-Translator-Person so it’s probably quite obscure and kind of foreign and anyway you know what translations are like (LOL!) and tbqh you can’t even really be sure of what you’re getting…

(I paraphrase, slightly.)

Their argument, then, is that translations are hard enough to sell as it is without your having to remind people that the book is a translation before they’ve even picked it up. There are plenty of publishers I like very much who make this argument, and I do understand. I do think it underestimates our readers, but where most publishers are concerned I really don’t see this as a lack of respect for the translator’s work.

(Sure, there are countries where the circumstances are quite different: plenty of places in, say, southern Europe, where translators’ names are routinely left off covers, despite the fact that nobody there would argue that readers aren’t open to translations per se; so yes, there, unlike here, it really might indeed be simply a matter of the translators themselves being undervalued.)

But the wording in your question—“keeping translators’ names hidden”—and my last paragraph—“translators’ names are routinely left off covers”—both suggest an active omission, and hence an assumption that the inclusion of the translator’s name on the cover was the obvious default. That there was originally some glorious proto-jacket that did include translators’ names but at some point the publishers craftily, stingily, and deliberately removed them. Rather than not deciding to include them in the first place, which isn’t, I think, the same thing.

Now, I happen to disagree with those assumptions some publishers make about reader prejudice. But there is another argument for which I have every sympathy. Jackets are there to sell products, and arguably should include only those things that will help to persuade people to pick up and buy a book, and should not be cluttered with anything else. An optimal front cover includes the author and the title and whatever image and design work will best sell it and a celebrity quote if you can get one… but that’s it. Nothing extraneous, no extra information or assorted other credits, however well-earned. After all, the front jacket will only rarely include the name of the publisher, it won’t have the barcode or the ISBN or the name of the designer, all of which serve a function and so need to be somewhere, but they don’t need to be there. There’ll be a blurb, which will go on the back if it’s the paperback or on the flaps if it’s a hardback, but this, too, isn’t the first hit that will persuade readers to pick it up. The jacket is there to sell a book, not to list credits or massage egos.

And individual translators’ names, on the whole, do not sell books. It’s perfectly possible to think most readers won’t be scared of a translation without necessarily believing a translator’s name is actively an asset at the point of retail, and that’s what I think should be preeminent among criteria for what we put on the front. Frankly if a publisher could get an endorsement quote from her saying “What a masterpiece! I wish I’d written this!”, I’d much rather they stuck J.K. Rowling’s name on my book than insisting on mine. We might even sell a few copies.

Yes, there are a small number of translators whose names are indeed an asset, and it would be a shame if marketing departments in publishing houses didn’t see that; if you’ve got a book in the U.K. translated by Anthea Bell or Margaret Jull Costa, say, do put their name on the jacket because they’ll often be more familiar to readers than the original author, and deservedly so. (This often applies, too, with the retranslation of a classic where what you’re buying is specifically the new translation by Translator X rather than merely an interchangeable access to the original.) But that’s not the case for most of us. Believe me, I wish individual translators’ names did help to sell a book—“OMG, the new Daniel Hahn is out tomorrow!” But no, we aren’t there yet.

This is not to say—of course—that I feel translators’ names, or the fact that a book is translated at all, should be “hidden”, to use your word. I think we need proper credit—names on the title page in a reasonable font, sometimes on the back cover, a biography (if it’s a hardback, possibly on the back flap along with the author’s?). I fight for these things in my contracts, and I make my contribution to a translated book pretty visible at every opportunity. But while I’ve always been grateful for a cover credit, I don’t think I’ve ever insisted on one. I trust designers and marketing professionals to know what they’re doing, and I don’t think my name is ever going to help them persuade a reader pick up my book out of the hundreds of others on display, and that’s what the jacket needs to do.

Yes, credit is important—we’re professionals and our translations are our own creations—but it would be a shame to clutter a gorgeous, striking design with more words, my name, the publishers’ name, the designer’s name, the blurb, and other (also legitimately important) bits and pieces, wouldn’t it?

Many of my fellow translators would disagree with me. But as professionals we all have our different red lines, and as campaigners we all pick our battles. Yes, I’ll fight hard for a visible, respectful, professional credit and acknowledgement of my ownership of my work. I’ll fight for proper pay and copyright protection, and many other points of symbolism as well as substance that matter to my job. But I’m not going to let my ego—pretty substantial though it is, by translators’ standards—get in the way of publishers doing theirs.

For more insights from Daniel, check out this compilation of our favorite bits of translation wisdom from his past columns. Send us any questions you have for Daniel about language, translation, or the ‘curious composite’ of world literature to!


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