The Translator & the Literary Agent: An English-Language Capriccio
Setting: An Italian literary agent contacts a translator regarding the translation of a book. The agent represents an author who wants to sell his work in the U.S. Long discussions ensue about the contract, but the agent refuses to sign any agreement that doesn’t give him and the author the power to modify the translation in any way they want before publishing it, “in case you make a mistake.” The translator isn’t having it.
Yes, the translator says. I can’t exclude the possibility that I might make a mistake. But if I did, I would obviously want to fix it. It’s in my own self-interest not to have mistakes in a translation with my name on it. Still, I’m the author of the translation, and I need to make sure that my work isn’t changed without my consent.
Agent: But what if we don’t agree with your interpretation of something?
Translator: Well, a translation is an interpretation, and reasonable people might disagree about interpretation. A difference of opinion, though, doesn’t necessarily mean that the translator has warped the meaning. But if you mean what would happen if I completely misinterpreted a sentence or missed a double entendre, then of course I would want to know that. For reasons that are obvious, I would never want to publish a translation that contained those kinds of mistakes. In the end, it’s got my name on it. But, no, I’m not inclined to grant you the right to change the translation without my permission just because you, who are not a native English speaker, would write it differently. Translations should always be revised, but by professionals who are native in the language of the translation.
Agent: Both the author and I are fluent English speakers.
Translator: Yes, but neither of you is either a native English speaker or an Italian-to-English translator. Still, if you think your English is that good, shouldn’t you probably just translate the book yourselves?
Agent: I appreciate your passionate defense of your profession, and I understand the idea that the “translator is an author,” but you have to admit that my client is more of an author than you are.
Translator: Let me ask you this. Suppose I read your client’s book, and I find that he’s been unclear or excessively verbose, or he’s botched a description, or there’s an inconsistency in the story line, or I just don’t like his interpretation of some social or historical event, and I insist that he fix it before I translate, will he do it?
Agent: I’m shocked. I’ve never encountered an attitude like this in all my years of dealing with translators.
Translator: I’m not surprised. A lot of my colleagues are incurable idiots.