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Book Covers: To #NameTheTranslator or Not?

By Oisin Harris and Giulia Maggiori


Let us paint a scene for you. You are in your favourite bookshop browsing the translated fiction section. You are getting lost between those foreign names, some more famous and some you have never heard before. You start picking up classics in translation; The Plague by Camus, or A Woman by Sibila Aleramo. Then you browse the new titles; The Red-Haired Woman by Orhan Pamuk and The Vegetarian by Han Kang. It is at this point that you notice something you have never noticed before: none of the covers state the translator’s name.


Traditionally, the translator's name is not displayed on the cover but is published within the first pages of the book (where the type of copyright held, the edition, etc. is also specified). According to an article published by The Globe And Mail this is quite a recent trend. In the article published in 2003, Ray Conlogue highlights how more and more publishers were starting to drop the names of the translators off of the cover. The choice seems to be due to a lack of space on the cover, which according to the publishing houses cannot contain all the information that deserves to be placed in the foreground. This excuse does not seem to hold up, however, given that the covers often contain citations of newspaper articles, names of awards for which the book has been nominated and many other pieces of information that could be considered secondary to the role of the translator.


Moreover, in 1976 UNESCO wrote a series of rules aimed at protecting the work of translators. One of the points highlighted in the final document states that publisher should “assure the translator and his translation similar publicity proportionately to that which authors are generally given, in particular, the name of the author of the translation should appear in a prominent place on all published copies of the translation, on theatre bills, in announcements made in connection with radio or television broadcasts, in the credit titles of films and in any other promotional material.”


The social media campaign and hashtag #NameTheTranslator created by Helen Wang, acclaimed translator of Bronze and Sunflower, has been used to encourage naming translators on book covers and wherever translated books are sold or discussed. At first glance, you might think that this is only an omission by the ‘big 5’ publishers. But, looking at smaller independent presses (which tend to be the ones publishing the most translated fiction), we can see that the choice of having a translator’s name grace a cover is not a uniform one. Having a constant and alluring visual identity is a factor and publishers like Fitzcarraldo Editions or Pushkin Press (both stalwarts of the translated scene) don’t include their translators on covers yet, both have done so much for translation. Another interesting case are Ferrante’s novels for Europa Editions which don't feature translator extraordinaire, Ann Goldstein’s name on their cover, could this be all down to preserving publishers’ strong visual identity across book covers? Or is it because they simply want readers picking their books for the story not because it happens to be in translation? Then there are publishers like Charco Press who always name the translator prominently on their books. Their MD, Carolina Orloff gives the following reasoning:



“Translation is an art form in its own right and should be given more recognition as such. That’s one of the reasons why we choose to give our translators (and editors) prominence in our titles: their names appear on the cover alongside the author and their bios appear on the flaps. Without translators, Charco simply could not exist. They are the artists making the change possible.”


Perhaps one of the best placed people to ask about this debate is the marvellous Daniel Hahn (whom we once interviewed here) who offers up some great insights. Hahn states that for a lot of publishers, “Their argument…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.”


This is an issue affecting translated fiction overall, whereby many bigger publishers see translated fiction as more demanding on readers and as not having as broad a readership. Hahn is also very aware of a book cover’s job in selling books and that, “The jacket is there to sell a book, not to list credits or massage egos.”


The argument that there are marketing reasons as to why including translator names on covers isn’t necessary, seems one that I doubt most translators would object to, for as Hahn notes, “individual translators’ names, on the whole, do not sell books.” Just like (unless you are in the market for a Penguin classic) publishers' names rarely sell books. The key is that translators should be recognised and rewarded for their work, if not on the cover, then naming them in reviews and prizes is fundamental in fostering an image of translation beyond just a service provider but actually as a content creator too.


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