Giving Translators Their Due

Rachel Zarrow
From the March/April 2022 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Though translator Jennifer Croft and Polish author Olga Tokarczuk shared the 2018 Man Booker International Prize—now known as the International Booker Prize—for the novel Flights, Croft’s name was not on the cover of the U.K. edition, published by Fitzcarraldo, nor the American edition from Riverhead. Such an omission was and is not uncommon in the world of literary translation, but the practice has recently come under scrutiny as a symptom of broader undervaluation of translators’ work. In September, Croft published an op-ed in the Guardian titled “Why translators should be named on book covers,” in which she argued that despite recent improvements in the treatment of translators—since 2016, for instance, the prize money for the International Booker has been evenly split between the author and the translator—there is still much to be done to ensure that translators are fairly compensated and recognized. As the industry begins to grapple with how to better support translators at all stages of the publishing process, the appeal to put translators’ names on book covers has become an early rallying cry.  

Translators Jennifer Croft, Geoffrey Brock, and Esther Kim. (Credit: Nathan Jeffers, Martin Miller, ZH Liew)

Following the publication of Croft’s essay, author Mark Haddon approached Croft about writing an open letter that called on publishers to name translators on covers. The letter, published last year on September 30—International Translation Day—has since garnered over 2,500 signatures from writers worldwide including Bernardine Evaristo, Katie Kitamura, R. O. Kwon, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Olga Tokarczuk. The signatories pledge to ask “in our contracts and communications, that our publishers ensure, whenever our work is translated, that the name of the translator appears on the front cover.” The letter had immediate effect: Less than two weeks after it was posted, Pan Macmillan U.K. announced that it was “fully supportive” of the movement and was happy to add translators’ names to all its covers going forward.

But for other publishers, what’s the sticking point? Many of the editors, translators, and agents interviewed for this story referenced a long-held belief in the publishing industry that books with translators’ names on the covers sell fewer copies than those without the names of translators, but no one knew of a concrete, data-driven example to support the claim. According to Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, for years “it was a selling truism that it was harder to sell a book that had a translator on the cover—like it was another level of separation between writer and reader.” But he notes that “thinking has evolved about this over time, and you will find that translators’ names, happily, are going to appear more and more now.” Indeed, for some publishers—including independent houses like Catapult, Unnamed Press, Archipelago, and Transit Books—a cover credit for the translator is standard practice.

When asked about the movement to include translators’ names on covers, Johanna Lindborg, a literary agent at Bonnier Rights, an agency based in Sweden that represents Nordic-language authors and sells translation, film, and television rights internationally, says that Bonnier Rights “understand[s] and support[s] the decision to print the translators’ names on the cover in some cases, if it is advantageous in the promotion of the book.” Lindborg continues: “On the other hand, in some instances and for some genres, advertising that the book is a translation may not be in the best interest of sales or marketing, so in those cases the translators’ names are perhaps best placed within the book. This is more often for the more commercial end of the spectrum.” 

The debate over crediting translators on book covers can create a potential schism between authors and their agents and/or publishers, a schism in which, as poet and translator Wayne Miller puts it, the “capitalist and moralist impulse” are opposed—even if they might not need to be. But regardless of the truth about profits, the moral stakes are about more than individual recognition. Croft points out that “to conceal that a book is a translation is to pretend that all things originate in English [which is] disrespectful to the author, their culture, and their language” and “perpetuates a false sense of Anglophone exclusivity that does damage to all involved.”

Racial disparities are also prevalent in the field of translation. Esther Kim, a translator from Korean into English, notes that in the United States and U.K., “literary translators identify overwhelmingly…as white, and yet they are often single-handedly representing the rest of the world. I’d prefer to see more acknowledgement of translation and colonial history, colonial subjects, and translators in formerly colonized countries.” To shift the demographics of the industry, Kim stresses the need to create more opportunities for translators of color, translators of minority (usually non-European) languages, and translators who are heritage speakers. Kim adds that early language education matters, and she points to the work of the U.K.-based organization Shadow Heroes, which offers creative translation workshops and bills itself as “an education initiative that supports young people in embracing all sides of their linguistic and cultural heritages.” Meanwhile, Croft expresses hope that the inclusion of translators’ names on covers will call attention to these disparities, adding that “by erasing the identity of the translator, the industry allows for systemic discrimination against translators of color.”

Though the normalization of including translators’ names on the covers of books is important, it is only one of many issues facing translators. Susan Harris, the editorial director of Words Without Borders, an online magazine for international literature that credits and compensates both writers and translators equally, notes: “There are other issues—royalties, rates, copyrights—that need attention, and we hope to see those addressed as well.” 

To create more equity for translators, authors must be effective allies and learn what translators need and desire. Translator Geoffrey Brock, a signatory of the open letter, says that, while he knows publishers’ margins can be thin, he would like to see “higher per-word rates, especially for more difficult books, and a small royalty, one that should come out of the author’s cut rather than the publisher’s.” He sees translators as coauthors and suggests, “Instead of the original author getting 10 percent and the translator getting zero, do an 8/2 split.”

Of course writers may not be positioned to advocate for these changes. Sarah Rose, the author of two books of narrative nonfiction originally published in English, notes that in her experience with publishing, the decision-making around crediting translators was “completely opaque.” Throughout the publication process for her nonfiction book For All the Tea in China: Espionage, Empire and the Secret Formula for the World’s Favourite Drink (Hutchinson, 2009), which has been translated into at least four languages, she was never in touch with a translator. Rose supports “the idea of everybody getting credit who deserves it,” yet she notes that selling world rights to a book often divorces the author of the original text from future translations, which are at the publisher’s discretion. 

In an era when the consolidation of publishing houses has restricted opportunities for writers and the prospect of making a living income from book publishing is slim, authors, especially debut authors, may feel hesitant to advocate for specific clauses that support translators in their contracts. Even translators themselves may hesitate to advocate for industry changes out of a fear of backlash, and, notably, they do not typically have agents to negotiate on their behalf. But if a critical mass of writers and translators begin to take a stand, these conversations will become easier. As Esther Allen, a translator from Spanish and French into English, puts it, “What has to happen is the establishment of the translator’s name on the cover as a norm, one that publishers would be embarrassed to deviate from.”

Olivia Taylor Smith, executive editor of Unnamed Press, contends that the stakes are high, pointing out that omitting translators’ names from covers “only serves to further the erasure of the labor involved in publishing—from the editors and translators, copy editors, production managers, publicists, sales reps, printers, warehouse workers, booksellers, and on—which in turn makes it easier to increasingly discount the cost of the book.”    


Rachel Zarrow is a writer based in San Francisco. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Electric Literature, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.