Walking through the aisles of a bookshop searching for a book, either as a gift to someone or to read ourselves, there are many factors that will attract our attention and make us read the back cover to decide whether to buy it or not. Others are attracted by a pretty cover, others are captured by the title; others are drawn by the writer’s name, whether someone they already know or someone they have heard about, whose work they want to explore.
But how many people would choose a book according to the person who translated it from one language to another? How many would be motivated to buy a book by the name of its translator?
Let us tackle this question by means of another question that is easier to answer: how many people would choose to buy tickets to a play or a film, judging by the names of the actors playing the different roles?
I think the answer is obvious: Many people would! The actors in a theatre company, or the cast of a movie are, together with the script (known or unknown), the writer and the director, one of the main criteria that will decide whether we attend a play or watch a film, and so forth.
Now let us look at translation. In the words of Ralph Manheim, the great translator from German to English, “translators are like actors who speak the lines as the author would if the author could speak English”.
The actors in a theatre company, or the cast of a movie are, together with the script (known or unknown), the writer and the director, one of the main criteria that will decide whether we attend a play or watch a film, and so forth.
Effectively, translation in Manheim’s formulation is a kind of interpretive performance, bearing the same relationship to the original text as the actor’s work does to the script (or play), the performing musician’s to the composition, and so forth.
In fact, just as actors and musicians are required to convey to the audience the messages, emotions and other elements of a theatrical script, a scenario or a musical piece, so does the translator. If they want to do their job well, they have to ensure that the readers of the translation understand and internalize the text emotionally and artistically in the same way as the readers of the original, acquiring a similar aesthetic and sensory experience.
The above conclusion effectively means that when we are familiar with a translator’s value, we obtain a passport to intellectual and artistic pleasures that are at least of equal value as those experienced by the readers of the original.
There is, however, one more reason that makes the translator important to whether we choose a book or not: the fact that, frequently, the translator is also a rapporteur of foreign literature. In other words, they are the link between global literature and the publishing house, helping them to select works that are worthy of attention among the throngs of books available to choose from.
If they want to do their job well, translators have to ensure that the readers of the translation understand and internalize the text emotionally and artistically in the same way as the readers of the original, acquiring a similar aesthetic and sensory experience.
This means that if you were to follow a translator’s career, you would often identify the choices they make as a reader (since translators are, first and foremost, in-depth readers of the books in question); if these choices coincide with your own taste, they can prove to be a safe criterion for choosing the books you end up reading.
So, next time you go to the bookshop, have a look at the writers’ names, the covers and the summaries, but don’t forget to sneak a peek at the translator’s name as well!