TRANSLATION Don't forget to #NameTheTranslator!

Translators are all too often invisible in, but it's time publishers started acknowledging their role, says Julie Sullivan

People like to believe that they’ve read War and Peace, not 'an English translation of War and Peace'.

Deborah Smith, who shared a Man Booker Prize with Han Kang, the author, for her translation of The Vegetarian. It was the first time a translator was so recognized (but not the last).

I once read an article by an author whose book had been published in English and sank like a stone. But when he was invited to go on tour in Japan, he was treated like a celebrity author. He enjoyed this very much, although he thought it was strange, he wrote; but in the article, he took all the credit for the book’s success, and never once mentioned the translator’s name — even though she actually accompanied him on the tour as his interpreter.

How it often still is vs how it should be. The highly praised translator of the French edition is Jean-François Menard.

Children’s book illustrators have rightly protested that their names belong on the front cover of a book. (Thank you to SCBWI's own Sarah McIntyre!) Translators, though, are lucky if theirs appears even on the title page inside the book. Sometimes a publisher is worried that if young readers know it is a translation, they won’t buy it. Is that a good way to make children learn that translated literature is fun to read?

Four translations of Pippi Longstocking. Left to right, top to bottom: Florence Lamborn, Susan Beard, Edna Hurup, Tiina Nunnally

Translators are all too often left completely unmentioned in book reviews of translations —although the reviewer is actually reading the translator’s words, not the original author’s. (Of course, it is rare for children’s books to be reviewed at all, although S.F. Said makes the point that they are more important than adult books, not less. And children’s books in translation are rare anyway.) But translators are writers too; if you have ever compared two translations of the same text, you will know this.

When you ask people about the books that changed their lives — the ones that really made a massive impact, and have never been forgotten — they will almost always talk about children's books. That's why I think children's books are the most important books of all.

SF Said

This disrespect for translators is receiving more and more attention, thanks to the efforts of translators themselves speaking out. The hashtag #namethetranslator, launched by the Society of Authors, has taken off on Twitter and elsewhere as translators demand to be seen as writers too.

Pippi was not written in English. But you'd never know it was translated from this Amazon page. This 1954 translation is by Edna Hurup.

Wikipedia and Amazon added the category "translator" to their sites only recently, after protests by translators. Publishers, too, often neglect the translator.

The author Astrid Lindgren and the illustrator get a nod from the publisher, Viking, in this 2010 edition. The translator, Tiina Nunnally, is not mentioned.

A good translator can make an author into a celebrity, as we have seen (and sometimes more respected than in the author's home country!). A bad translation can destroy a book’s potential. 

So remember: when you discuss any book in translation, always Name the Translator!


Julie Sullivan is a SCBWI volunteer and translator from French and German to English.

A few people to follow on this subject: 

Danny Hahn

Sarah McIntyre

Society of Authors

Helen Wang

Avery Udagawa 

Picture credits

Feature logo: Jess Stockham 

Harry Potter French edition cover: Jean-Claude Götting

Bronze and Sunflower cover: Meilo So

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