Working with Editors of Translations

I recently received a call for papers for a conference entitled “Authorial and Editorial Voices in Translation” that will be put on in early November by the Voice in Translation research group based at the University of Oslo. The organizers are Hanne Jansen and Anna Wegener at the University of Copenhagen, which will be hosting the conference. The call for papers touches on some extremely important points that are often overlooked when people speak about translation:

It is not only translators who are involved in translation. This symposium “Authorial and Editorial Voices in Translation” seeks to explore the role of other agents – authors, publishers, editors – in the work of translation. Translators will sometimes receive “translation briefs” from authors either offering to assist with, or seeking to interfere in the process of translation. Publishing houses have considerable power in selecting translators and in obliging both parties – authors as well as translators – to acquiesce in their decisions. While it is well-known that translations are often censored in totalitarian regimes, less attention has been paid to the way in which, in ‘free’ societies, commercial interests can be allowed to interfere with the work of translation.

People do generally assume that every decision made about a translation was made by the translator. Maybe this is because so many reviewers of translations are associated with universities and academic presses, where authors (professors) generally do have unfettered artistic license. But in the real world of commercial publishing, editors (and sometimes even publicity departments) also have a substantial role in shaping a work – and the more lucrative the enterprise, the more likely the translator is to be disempowered if it is deemed beneficial to a book’s commercial viability. Almost all Stieg Larsson’s books, for instance, were renamed in their English-language versions and the translation “prettified” so much the translator took his name off the project in protest, adopting the pseudonym Reg Keeland. And Marilyn Booth, translator of Rajaa Alsanea’s novel Girls of Riyadh, had her translation reworked by an editor against her will at the request of an author who wished to see the story presented in more universal terms that would minimize its rootedness in Saudi Arabian culture. Booth writes about the experience in her essay “Translator v. author (2007): Girls of Riyadh go to New York,” published in the July 2008 issue of Translation Studies.

Nothing like this has ever happened to me, I am pleased to report, though I have been asked to sign contracts giving an editor artistic control over my translation (I refused). In fact, I have been fortunate enough to work with editors whose interventions vastly improved my translations, such that I was delighted to accept their editorial suggestions. On one of the first books I ever translated, the memoir Anecdotage by Gregor von Rezzori, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 1996, I had the privilege of working with legendary editor Elisabeth Sifton, whose skills were so justifiably celebrated that Rezzori had given her carte blanche to change anything she wanted in his book, and her edits (tightening up a sentence here, a paragraph there) most definitely improved both the book and my translation. Barbara Epler, the publisher and editor-in-chief of New Directions who somehow still finds time to edit my Robert Walser translations, has a downright uncanny sense of how to tweak a sentence, rearranging words and clauses or swapping out a synonym to make the prose live and breathe. And I will be forever grateful to Declan Spring, the senior editor at ND who helps me with Jenny Erpenbeck’s voice, for discovering a slew of 1970s song titles hidden in a freeform bit of prose in a crucial scene in The Book of Words. No one reads a book manuscript more meticulously than a good editor, and so there is no better ally and interlocutor to help a translator tease out the crucial details of an author’s style. Having a smart second set of eyes can be invaluable.
In short, publishing translations inevitably entails close collaboration with editors, a relationship that can be either highly beneficial or highly detrimental to a translation and book, depending on how it is handled. So far I have been blessed always to work with editors who saw their job as helping me be better at what I was trying to do (rather than disputing or even negating my vision of a project). I’m so glad there will be a conference specifically devoted to the interactions between translators and their editors and authors; I very much look forward to hearing what comes out of it.
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