Editing Translated Books

Many translators view editors as a necessary evil. According to translator Krzysztof Fordoński, translators would be their own editors because they have a mastery of their chosen languages as well as a “literary gift” of their own to smooth the way for any idioms or metaphors that don’t translate easily. Fordoński admits that most translators “resort” to working with an editor. So what is it about editors that is so irksome to translators like Fordoński?

For one thing, editors and the publishing houses they represent often have different goals than a translator. Fordoński and many other translators believe that good editors of translated works must see reason and leave some incomprehensible translated passages alone. Sometimes this means that these texts “cannot be any different because it is the only way to represent the qualities of the original text.” Fordoński calls this the “literary sensitivity” that is crucial for any editor to have, but most editors call this unrealistic. Even though literary editors don’t like to admit it, it is important that the books they edit sell. Impenetrable passages do not usually make best-sellers. Still, it’s disheartening to hear, as both translator and/or an author, that your work must be changed drastically in order to be successful. That doesn’t even account for all the translations that have overstepped their bounds and deforeignized a text so much that it is completely alien to its original. A classic example of this is William Weaver’s Italian-to-American English translation of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics where “ricotta” became “cream cheese.” Presumably, the editors were concerned that American readers would come across the word “ricotta,” realize they were reading a translation, and throw away the book in disgust. Many book lovers agree that this is a case of excessive adaptation, where the goal of making the text read seamlessly to an American audience superseded any loyalty to Calvino’s original syntax, setting, or culture.

Why are editors so concerned with forcing a translated text to read as if it was originally written in its target-language? Surely any reader would give a translated text more leeway if they came across any unfamiliar words or idioms. The trouble is that most readers and reviewers are not even aware that they are reading a translated text. The name of a translator is not always featured on a cover and is often only included in a brief acknowledgement. When reviewers read books, they often don’t mention the translator unless they find fault with their work in some way. If they do mention the translator in a positive manner, it is usually to point out that the language of the book flowed as if it was originally written in the target-language. All of this creates the expectation that in order to be a good translation, a reader shouldn’t be able to tell that it was translated at all. Thus we get cream cheese instead of ricotta, and Cosmicomics becomes an American classic.

Books should be allowed to “sound foreign,” not necessarily to the point of being incomprehensible in the target-language, but they should not be so Americanized that they become unrecognizable. It is reasonable for a translator to expect their editor to be somewhat familiar with the author’s intent and the meaning behind the original text, and in turn, translators should expect their editors to make concessions of their artistry in favor of clarity and readability. The relationship between a translator and an editor needs to be equitable in order to craft the best version of the text. It is crucial that when translated books are acquired, designed, and marketed, that their translated quality be a key aspect of their identity. Translators themselves are half-authors and half-editors and deserve recognition for their hard work. We may find that audiences are far more receptive to unfamiliar syntax when they know that they are holding a translated book, a type of art in and of itself.

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