The Invisibility of the Translator

We were taught to imagine a sliding scale between “Author,” “Text” and “Reader."

For English literature students, it has almost become cliché to mention Roland Barthes’s 1964 essay, The Death of the Author, which argued for prioritizing the reader’s response in the meaning of a text rather than the supposed intentions of the author. As students, we were encouraged to focus more on texts themselves, their connection to other texts, discourses, and historical contexts. Whatever decisions the author may have consciously made were to be treated with heavy skepticism—authors no longer had a say in the interpretation of their own work as much as readers and critics. Like many other literary theorists, Barthes’s text arrived to me through translation, and whole branches of the degree I finished one year ago gave me the chance to study a variety of literature in translation.

I never seriously questioned how a translation can affect the meaning of a text until we were assigned to read the French theorist Jacques Derrida’s Of Grammatology (1967), translated by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. I found it incomprehensible, along with many of my classmates. The one-hour lecture we had as a kind of introduction essentially came to, “Just keep reading the original text and you’ll understand it,” and I remember telling a friend at the time that the actual, original text was in French; perhaps the translation had something to do with it. Granted, even in French Derrida’s text is notoriously difficult to understand, but there could very well have been issues with Spivak’s translation, as one reviewer for the Los Angeles Review of Books suggested.

Of Grammatology and its central idea of deconstruction—a strategy for textual analysis—have become enmeshed in literary studies, but it is also a good metaphor for one of the field’s key failings. While Derrida’s and countless other important texts came to us in translation, we were taught to imagine a sliding scale between “Author,” “Text” and “Reader,” where the largest emphasis for deriving meaning was placed on the text. Now, one year after I’ve finished my degree, I’m embarrassed to realize that I never stopped to ask, “Where is the translator in this equation?” I look back and wonder how we could entertain the idea, as Barthes would, that the author is “dead,” without considering that vital cultural and linguistic mediator—the translator. For one whole trimester I was in a class that read and translated Albert Camus, and I cannot recall us ever having a serious discussion about the implications of translation, let alone any theories about translation. In literary studies, even with emphasis on global literature, the translator was truly invisible.

The invisibility of the translator—as in, that second name on a book cover—is an issue that, in recent years, has begun to be seriously addressed. The Man Booker International Prize in 2016 was equally split between the winning author of The Vegetarian, Han Kang, as well as her translator Deborah Smith. Many other prizes and awards have started to follow this example as well. The translator’s invisibility is also an academic inquiry, however, as I witnessed at a conference at the British Library in May titled “The Translator Made Corporeal: Translation History and the Archive.” The purpose of the conference was to explore the “human, flesh and blood translator” and to challenge the expectation that translators should remain “hidden, out of view, transparent, incorporeal.” Included in the conference was also an exhibition of the same name by the photographer Julia Scönstädt and the conference’s main organiser, Deborah Dawkin. Translators were photographed at the London Book Fair one month earlier and recorded their personal thoughts and reflections on translation, which is available online.

Papers presented at the conference ranged from topics such as “The Habitus of Visually Impaired Translators and Interpreters” to “The Woman Translator’s Double Invisibility.” The latter investigated the legacy of the Italian translator Ada Prospero, who fought in the anti-fascist resistance and championed women’s rights. Despite the fact that she published many of her translations under the name Ada Prospero, she has only come to be known as Ada Gobetti through her husband, Piero Gobetti. The general introduction to the conference surmised, “we need to investigate the biographical details of the translator, including his/her educational, social and economic backgrounds.” This involves, as Translation Studies scholar Jeremy Munday argued, that we look through their archives to “reveal their every-day lives, struggles, networks and even friendships.” This kind of approach cuts across multiple academic disciplines including History, Classics and Translation Studies—the last of which has relatively recently begun to look seriously into the biographical details of translators.

To give an example of this process in action, I listened to a presentation by Zofia Ziemann, a researcher at the University of Krakow, who spoke about Celina Wieniewska, the translator of one of Poland’s most well known authors, Bruno Schulz. Wieniewska was born in Warsaw to a Polish-Jewish family and led a fascinating life after escaping the war, finally settling in London as a translator. Criticism has been leveled at Wieniewska by prominent Polish critics such as Michał Paweł Markowski, who wrote, “[Wieniewska] blithely omits the troublesome sentences, thus entirely erasing the author’s signature.” Famous writers such as Philip Roth, John Updike, and even J.M. Coetzee have claimed that they cannot truly “know” Schulz through Wieniewska’s translations. Ziemann says there is some truth to Markowski’s claim, that Wieniewska “does cut the thick of his prose, she does trim…but she doesn’t erase his signature.” Wieniewska was a translator who represented many publishing houses, and therefore knew the book-selling market extremely well. Despite being told that the Anglophone market would not be receptive to translations of Schulz, Wieniewska went ahead and produced translations of his short stories in such a way as to make him more receptive to English-speaking audiences. Ziemann says that Wieniewska ultimately “secured Schulz’s readership as much as possible” and made him one of the few Polish prose writers “who have gotten international recognition” despite the misgivings of Polish critics.

In another presentation, the translator and researcher David Charlston showed us the context behind two different translations of On War by Carl von Clausewitz (1832)—originally written during the time of the Napoleonic Wars—which shed light on how translators’ political and professional backgrounds influence the translated text. Anatol Rapaport’s 1968 translation retains the philosophical language of Clausewitz’s original text, yet Rapaport was also an anti-Vietnam War activist who gave the first lectures against the Vietnam War, and even signed “a pledge refusing tax payments in protest.” Charlston showed how another translation produced in 1969 by Michael Howard and Peter Paret, who supported the U.S. military, attempted to “contest the authority of Rapaport’s anti-war version.” Whereas Rapaport’s version “speaks in outdated metaphysical language,” Howard and Paret use vocabulary such as “complex activity,” requiring “intellect, temperament and mental aptitude,” so that in effect they reframed “Napoleonic soldiery in the language of modern, professional career.” There is even a website which aims to convince people to buy Howard and Paret’s translation instead of Rapaport’s.

Ultimately, this approach of inquiry into the “flesh and blood” and “day to day” aspect of translators’ lives is still quite young, and therefore capable of developing in a variety of directions. It is unclear what translators themselves think about the possibility of such a close look into their lives—most translators who I have spoken with seek a humble level of recognition in comparison with the kind of fame that some authors receive. What is absolutely vital at this point is for literary studies to incorporate theories and histories of translation, rather than assuming it is enough to simply offer literature in translation. Translation is ultimately a creative act, and an understanding of it—whether or not we ourselves are translators—will massively improve our understanding of literary theory and texts. If we fail to do that, we fail to take into account an important dimension of interpretation and how a text creates its meaning. While the translator may have previously escaped the fate of the author because of their invisibility, today the translator is visibly alive and here to stay.

  • Catherine Thankamma

    Excellent piece and very relevant to me and the society in which I live where a translator is discouraged from attending the release of a book translated by her.