There is no culture, past or present, that has a monopoly on poetic achievement. From Ancient Greece to India and now to the United States, wherever and whenever people have been able to hold a pen or raise up their voices, they have done so to create and share poetry. Our world is a much richer place for this but it also raises a challenging question: How can we enable poetry to push beyond the boundaries of the language in which it was produced and make it accessible to a larger audience?
The answer, of course, is to translate it from one language to the other, but this is easier said than done. Translation is a complex and arduous endeavor that cannot be done quickly if it is to be done well (as anyone who has used Google Translate on long passages knows). In addition, the best translations must find ways to overcome certain obstacles that are almost built into the task of translating: Since not all languages are perfectly interchangeable and compatible, how does one translate a word from one language into another where that word or concept may not exist? How can a translator be sure that their translation matches the author’s original meaning, especially when the author may have been dead for decades or centuries? Most translators, as a result, often have their work cut out for them.
Despite the need for translators, however, many of them do not share equally in the profits when works that they have translated become successful. They may not be the author of a given text, but for their services in bringing a book or poem to new audiences, are they entitled to a greater share of its earnings–a royalty, perhaps?
Tim Parks addresses this question directly in a recent article in The New York Review of Books. Translators in most countries, Parks notes, are a rate based on the number of pages translated, so they receive a lump sum prior to a book’s publication. This arrangement pays translators for the quantity of pages translated, not for the quality of the translation, and thus ignores the idea that a translator is a “co-author” of the text who shapes how new audiences will engage with it. On the other hand, in places like Germany where translators are entitled to royalties–thus giving credence to the notion of translators as co-authors–very few actually earn significant income off of translation royalties owing to low book sales.
Ultimately, Parks concludes with his own belief that translators and publishers should come to their own arrangements prior to translating a work, but the underlying question goes beyond purely economic factors: How much is a translator the author or co-author of a work? It’s a question with profound implications for authors and translators in any language, and for the foreseeable future, one without a clear answer.