In London, a Call for Publishers to ‘Name Translators on the Cover’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Authors including Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Olga Tokarczuk, Max Porter, and Bernardine Evaristo lead the Society of Authors’ appeal to see translators come out of the shadows and be credited on book covers.

Image – Getty iStockphoto: Alex Linch

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Society of Authors: ‘They Should Be Properly Recognized’

Update October 2: Within some 48 hours of being released by Jennifer Croft and Mark Haddon, the open letter  issued by the Society of Authors–and backed by the American Authors Guild–has surpassed 1,400 signatures, each representing an author’s commitment to press her or his publisher to name #TranslatorsOnTheCover.–PA

Many readers of Publishing Perspectives have joined us in using the #NameTheTranslator hashtag for years, urging publishers to put the names of translators on the covers of translated literature and encouraging all book industry professionals to be sure to name the translator whenever referring to a translated work.

Today (September 30), on the United Nations’ annual International Translation Day, the question of cover credit for authors has suddenly flared again, with new urgency. The Society of Authors in London has opened a new campaign in which some of the biggest names in the business are asking publishers to name #TranslatorsOnTheCover with full book-cover credit.

Some houses have been steadfastly careful to give cover credit to translators. One of them is Amazon Publishing’s pace-setting Amazon Crossing and Amazon Crossing Kids translation imprints under Gabriella Page-Fort’s direction. Other houses have decided not to credit translators on book covers. An example is the United Kingdom’s highly regarded and much-awarded Fitzcarraldo Editions translation press.

While no one seems to be questioning a publishing house’s right to choose for itself how it credits translators, there’s a clever device at work here. The campaign calls on authors to commit to asking their publishers to ensure–”in contracts and communications”–that whenever their work is translated, the name of the translator(s) will appear on the front cover of the book.

Using an open letter and calling on its membership for signatures, this has become one of those fast-ballooning events that send communications people like the society’s Martin Reed to the news media twice: first, to announce that 350 people have signed the petition, and then again with an update: the number has jumped to 507 in an hour or two. The open letter’s message, signed by almost 900 at our last check,  is simple:

“For too long, we’ve taken translators for granted. It is thanks to translators that we have access to world literatures past and present.

“It is thanks to translators that we are not merely isolated islands of readers and writers talking among ourselves, hearing only ourselves.

“Translators are the lifeblood of both the literary world and the book trade which sustains it. They should be properly recognized, celebrated and rewarded for this. The first step toward doing this seems an obvious one.

“From now on we will be asking, 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 leaders of the effort are the American translator Jennifer Croft and the English Costa Prize-winner Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. That book, as it happens, is among 30 being defended this week by staffers of USA Today in a Banned Books Week exercise. In a tweet, Croft–a recipient of Cullman, Fulbright, PEN, MacDowell, Fondation Jan Michalski, and National Endowment for the Arts grants and fellowships–points out that providing book-cover credit to translators “costs publishers nothing.”

Update October 1: BBC Radio 4’s Justin Webb has interviewed Croft and Haddon about the campaign. The recording of the show is here and you can roll in to 2:22:53 to hear the conversation.

Opening the Campaign in Good Company

Does translator credit seem to you to be a small matter? The practice of denying a translator any recognition of her or his work on a book cover is far more common than many expect, and the proof lies in broad daylight.

We looked at the covers of the National Book Award’s 2021 longlisted works in Translated Literature, just named this month. Of those 10 works, only half of them name their translators on the books’ covers. And the publishers of longlisted works who do not give cover credit to translators on these handsomely designed covers may surprise industry professionals: they’re among the most respected houses that actually specialize in translation. These are publishers more dependent than most on translators. And yet they deny them book-cover credit with authors.

In one instance, a publisher has two books longlisted. One of those titles names its translator on the cover. The other one doesn’t.

These are the 10 titles longlisted for the 2021 US National Book Awards in Translated Literature. Publishers of five of the 10 don’t credit their translators on the covers

This may be why the initial cohort of writers joining Croft and Haddon in releasing the Society of Authors’ challenge in London today includes some heavy hitters:

  • Bernardine Evaristo
  • Neil Gaiman
  • Sarah Waters
  • Preti Taneja
  • Katie Kitamura
  • Simon Schama
  • Max Porter
  • Tracy Chevalier

And here on Twitter is the illustrator Sarah McIntyre, whose #PicturesMeanBusiness campaign for years has struggled to get the same rightful visibility (and metadata credit) for illustrators. They, too, are too frequently given no book-cover credit which, as McIntyre points out, makes it all the harder to build a reputation in the business. As you can see, she uses the #NameTheTranslator hashtag in solidarity. McIntyre is a faithful foot soldier for the cause of crediting literature’s critical but often faceless indispensable creative talents.

The States’ Authors Guild: ‘Full Support’

In the United States, the 11,000-member Authors Guild has sent a message today of robust support for the new #TranslatorsOnTheCover campaign.

The Stateside advocacy group’s leadership, in fact, goes farther than the Society of Authors’ does, calling for translators to be paid royalties and subsidiary rights shares and for authors and publishers to look for more diversity and inclusivity in hiring translators.

The Guild’s CEO, attorney and copyright specialist Mary Rasenberger, writes from her offices in New York City, “As the US counterpart to the UK’s Society of Authors, the Authors Guild fully supports today’s open letter from the society to all published writers asking them to request that their publishers provide cover credits for the people who translate their work.

“Translators play an irreplaceable role in creating a vibrant world literature and introducing new readers to important works by authors across the globe. Yet all too often they’re overlooked by the publishing industry, viewed as neither authors nor editors.

“It’s long past time that translators be acknowledged for their contributions by including their names on a book’s cover.  That’s only the first step, however; translators should also receive royalties and a share of subsidiary rights.

“We also urge both authors and publishers to hire more translators of color and from diverse backgrounds to better reflect and capture the unique perspectives they bring when translating a manuscript.”

Rasenberger also notes that this year, the Guild has issued its first model publishing contract for literary translators.

Why Some Publishers Say They Don’t Name #TranslatorsOnTheCover

Author Olga Tokarczuk, left, and translator Jennifer Croft won the 2018 (Man) Booker International Prize for ‘Flights.’ Image: Booker Foundation

Jennifer Croft, the American translator who is one of the drivers of this new campaign, won the 2018 (Man) Booker International Prize for her translation of Flights with its author, Olga Tokarczuk.

The International Booker splits its £50,000 (US$67,389) purse and honor evenly between author and translator. That’s one of the prize’s defining elements and probably its most significant contribution to the international community’s understanding of its translators’ importance. The National Book Foundation in the States has followed suit in establishing its still relatively young Translated Literature category as a dual accolade, added in January 2018, the same year that it also named Flights a finalist.

And yet neither the American cover nor the British edition has published Croft’s name on the cover.

On the American cover (right), you see Tokarczuk’s name, of course, and award seals for that International Booker win, for being a finalist in the National Book Awards, and for Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize in Literature. But you don’t see the name of the person who enables you, as reader of English, to read that book.

And the Nobel laureate Tokarczuk herself is now one of the earliest signatories of the Society of Authors’ #TranslatorsOnTheCover open letter.

What’s at issue here is not something about hurting translators’ feelings or appearing to be callous, although both those effects are in play at one level or another. What’s more important is that many publishers have maintained that consumers won’t buy a book with a translator’s name on the cover. The translator’s credit marks the book, these publishers say, as a translation, risking a loss of sales to readers who only want literature that orginates in their own languages and/or cultures.

There are three obvious problems to that line of thinking.

  • First, a publisher using this argument may be perceived as hoping to trick her or his consumer into a sale by hiding from the cover the fact that the work is translated from another language
  • And second, that publisher’s low estimation of his or her potential customer helps perpetuate the “nobody reads translations” myth that has hobbled world literature, particularly in the English-language markets, for too long
  • Most concerning, it must be said that bowing to a perceived market dislike of another culture’s artistry supports, even uninentionally, a xenophobia that has no place among true people of letters

The self-defeatism of this rationale is especially regrettable at a time when translation grants are being offered through multiple funding sources, many of them national-market rights promotion projects such as Finland’s FILI; Books From Norway and Norwegian Literature Abroad (NORLA); the Polish Book Institute; New Books From Italy; Books From Spain; the Brazilian Publishers group; Publishing Scotland; and more.

“I can’t help thinking, because there are so many women translators, that some people look at it as a service industry instead of an art. And that is very, very wrong.”Mark Haddon, on BBC Radio 4

A part of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award program in the United Arab Emirates is an offer of funding to support international publishers in meeting the costs of translation for Zayed-winning and -shortlisted Arabic titles. The International Prize for Arabic Fiction also has such funding as part of its mission. There are more such availabilities to help publishers shoulder the expenses of translations.

In many cases, translators are the reason that a good work may be translated at all. They walk important books into editors’ offices, making the pitch for a translation assignment, becoming not only the translators we know them to be but also the marketing reps for those books. This isn’t a role many of them would like to have, but it’s the way the market dynamic has developed: That’s why the best ambassadors and practitioners of translation may well be the least credited and recognized when their names are not credited on their translations’ covers.

So when many publishers these days are quick to brag that their industry is a globalized one, asserting that internationalization scares off its readers is a contradiction on its face. And as Croft has said in her BBC interview this week, “A work can only continue its life in translations.” Growing a book’s market requires translation sales and publication. Refusing to give cover credit to the translators that make this possible not only seems churlish but also bad business. Croft wrote a piece for the Guardian about the issue, published on September 10.

A darker level of the issue is being discussed, too, as Haddon points out to Justin Webb on the BBC’s Today: “I can’t help thinking, because there are so many women translators, that some people look at it as a service industry instead of an art. And that is very, very wrong.” He adds that of the six translator-winners of the Booker International Prize so far, none has been credited with the author on the winning book’s cover.

Meanwhile, more authors and translators have been adding their names to the open letter at the Society of Authors all day, committing to insisting that their publishers give cover credit to their translators.

  • Jennifer Acker
  • Esther Allen
  • Will Eaves
  • Carolyn Forché
  • Joanne Harris
  • Anton Hur
  • Jhumpa Lahiri
  • James McCrone
  • Philip Pullman
  • Sam Reaves
  • Meg Rosoff
  • Jeremy Tiang
  • Padma Viswanathan
  • Paul Yoon

Perhaps more publishing houses that do credit translators on their book covers will step forward to let writers, translators, and their fans know they’re onboard:

Some folks are using the new hashtag to commend and congratulate publishing houses that do put #TranslatorsOnTheCover:

And however publishers may respond, there’s a good chance that this campaign will find traction in more world markets.

Principles of inclusivity, a clear and potent dynamic in the international industry today, can be quickly and effectively deployed by publishing house staffers now accustomed to pressing their executives for reform.

#TranslatorsOnTheCover could be headed for many translations.

More from Publishing Perspectives on translation and translators is here, more on translation funding is here, and more on the Society of Authors is here.

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here. 

About the Author

Porter Anderson

Facebook Twitter

Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.