A major issue in translation in recent years has been the in/visibility of the translator. Previously, the general attitude was that translators should be invisible; in other words, their names and backgrounds weren’t important, since they were just workers there to serve the text. This, of course, is related to the supposed desire for an invisible translation, which means that it shouldn’t be obvious that a text is a translation; a translation should “flow” and should read just as if it were a document that had been written in the target language.
Both of these concepts – the invisible translation and the invisible translator – are debatable, and have been rightfully challenged, in a variety of ways. Some translators today insist on including forewords, afterwords, footnotes, or some other paratext in order to make themselves and their work visible to readers. Other translators insist that their names be printed on the title pages, or even on the covers, of any books they translate, to show that they are equal partners with an important role to play and that they deserve recognition. And still others write letters of complaint or explanation when reviews of their own or other translators’ work are published with only a brief mention of the fact that the book is a translation, or no mention of this at all.
So it seems clear that some progress is being made when the New York Times features an article all about a translator. Robert Fagles is the well known translator of, among other works, “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” and now “The Aeneid,” and both “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” became best-sellers, surprisingly in a country that generally eschews both translations and classics. Despite these facts, one might have expected just a review of his new translation, with perhaps a sentence or two with information about Mr. Fagles, so it is a nice change to see an article that focuses primarily on the translator and that even briefly looks at the challenges of translation (in this case, Mr. Fagles says, the distinct voices, and sustaining them, were the particular difficulties).
I’m hoping for more such articles that make translators and their work more visible.
Midweek Notes from a Practicing Writer
1 hour ago