Literary translators step into the spotlight

literary-translation book and letters

Over the past few years, Italian author Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels have become a quiet hit in the literary world, with acclaim and book sales around the world.  Like Ferrante, many authors owe a major part of their success to their translators.  In fact, as Telegraph columnist Anita Singh points out, many books – including Stieg Larsson’s bestselling Millennium series – don’t become hits until they can travel abroad, most notably by being translated into English.  But in Ferrante’s case, the author-translator relationship may go even farther.

It turns out there’s a lot of mystery surrounding the writer, who generally refuses to give interviews.  Some people think her English translator, Ann Goldstein, is actually Ferrante herself – a charge Goldstein is flattered by, but denies.

This story is intriguing for a number of reasons, including some that go beyond the mystery of Ferrante’s identity.  Lately, it seems like translators are starting to get more appreciation and recognition. Is the fact that an author and a translator could be suspected of being the same person a reflection of this major change in the literary world?

Like most translators, literary translators usually work in the shadows – which is understandable, to a certain extent.  After all, the author is the one who’s come up with the plot, characters, and wording of a book.  Still, some translators have drawn acclaim in their own right – sometimes even from the authors they work with.  Take Umberto Eco, who once said that his English translator William Weaver’s version of The Name of the Rose was better than the original.

Some translators have actually become almost synonymous with their author’s work.  In the 19th century, poet Charles Baudelaire popularized Edgar Allan Poe among French readers.  His translations of a number of Poe’s stories and poems are still the way many French people experience Poe today.

Then again, some authors don’t trust or appreciate translators.  Those who can (including literary heavyweights like Beckett and Nabokov) have, at least at times, translated their work into another language, themselves.  Mark Twain back-translated two of his short stories from French, with a typical mocking twist.

The relationship between authors and translators may not be predictable, but one certainty is that most translators don’t ever attain the fame or fortune that their authors may achieve. But now, that may be changing, at least among one group of writers and readers: In July, the Man Booker Prize committee announced that its International Prize will be awarded not only to an author, but also to their translator.

Some people are taking umbrage at this, but personally I think it’s an excellent idea – and not because I’m a translator.  As a reader, I’ve come across several literary translations I haven’t liked, which have completely put me off a book.  When I was a teenager, I remember opening a version of Zola’s Nana and finding the wording so distant from the usual eloquence in Zola’s works (original or translated versions) I’d come across, that I just set it aside.  Luckily, classic works often have other translations, so I was able to find one that suited me.  The experience made me appreciate translators more than I ever had, and made me realize how important they are to really bringing forth a writer’s unique voice.

Is Elena Ferrante actually Ann Goldstein?  Whatever the truth might be, the mystery — like the Man Booker Prize’s new rules — is contributing to putting literary translators into the spotlight, where they very rightly belong!

by Alysa Salzberg

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