Packaged Prejudice: Cultural Stereotypes in Translated Book Covers
By Oisin Harris and Giulia Maggiori
In 2014, the Africa is a Country blog published a post entitled 'The Dangers of a Single Book Cover', evidencing the overkill use of acacia trees and orange sunsets on book covers by African writers, or books about Africa. This pattern was addressed by articles also denoting the widespread use of cultural stereotypes like veils, mosques, mangoes, and the Taj Mahal on Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian book covers. Whilst the use of cultural stereotypes in book cover design perpetuates Western cultural stereotypes as bias toward other cultures, how do translated books and publishers of translated fiction navigate this issue within the context of this wider argument for better book cover representation?
Graham Huggan’s book, The Postcolonial Exotic: Marketing the Margins – (as this review notes) “argues that postcolonial authors, broadly those who write about, or on behalf of the developing world, exist in an international literary market whose mainstream readers use their texts like tourists use foreign spaces: in search of the exotic” – is a useful companion to this whole generic book cover debate. It would appear that translated fiction offers a remedy to the issues that Huggan’s book and the above articles denote. Interestingly, it seems that some translated fiction rather than “exotic” fiction about geographical areas like Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia that is originally written in English, seems to not resort to this lazy form of marketing.
Can a translated book cover convey its genre if translated fiction isn’t a genre? But that’s a whole other debate. Maybe translated fiction tends to publish fewer generic covers because book covers are a form of translation from verbal to visual? Book covers operate like designed interpretations of what an author has written, mirroring in effect what a translation is: a verbal interpretation of an author’s words into a different language. Covers are also borne out of collaboration between several parties as again translation is. There’s certainly no consensus on whether a cover should reveal instantly the book’s basic genre or be as interpretive as it wants.
Interestingly though, most of the covers from the Africa is a Country blog are from white writers, not all African either: Andre Brink, Joseph Conrad (Polish), Mia Couto, Hemingway (American), Elspeth Huxley (English), Barbara Kingsolver (American) and Doris Lessing. As an antidote against acacia trees, veils, mosques and hennaed feet covers look no further than books like Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s Tram 83 (Jacaranda Press, translated by Roland Glasser). Its cover bursts out like a Matisse cut out, very jazzy and no acacias or baobabs, no Serengeti plains!
Or take 2019’s Man Booker International winner, Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies (Sandstone Press, translated by Marilyn Booth): its cover depicts three Omani women but they are looking away from us, independent subjects not tied to any Orientalist gaze. There is also the moon, a celestial body and an unmade road out of their situation. Even Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories (Tilted Axis, translated by Tejaswini Niranjana) features no Taj Mahal or Saris but instead displays cinema tickets, various collected tickets and receipts. It’s wonderful to see publishers of translated fiction not fall prey to the generic tropes that past articles have despaired about.
Book covers are the reader's first approach to understanding what the book is about. Therefore, books belonging to the same genre often have similar covers that use the similar colours, fonts and designs. Books in translation are no exception. This means that sometimes the covers perpetuate stereotypes of the book's country of origin which makes it easily recognisable to the target audience. When it comes to literature in translation, one can often recognise the country of origin of a book simply by the cover. Extraordinary, isn't it?
Let's take contemporary African literature in translation as an example. The books on the shelves all have the same shades. Warm colours such as yellow and orange are predominant, as if the designers want to remind us of the sunsets on the Savanna. In contrast with the colours in the background, the silhouette of a man or woman often stands out. Obviously, there are exceptions, but making a book recognisable by the cover makes it more attractive to a specific target of readers.
Books translated from Chinese, set in China, or about China always have a predominant colour on the cover: red. The next time you go to a bookstore, I challenge you to find a book translated from Chinese that does not have the slightest hint of red on its cover. This is because in China red is used very frequently (it can be found on the packaging of the most disparate products, on billboards and on TV) as a symbol of good luck. In the western world, however, the false belief that the colour red is omnipresent in China due to communism is widely spread. The tradition of the red colour has much deeper roots.
We hope that translated book covers can continue to support the dialogue and build bridges between cultures that translation so wonderfully aspires to. In our next issue, we look at why translators names aren't on most covers.