Name me a translator

All translators deserve a platform. They carry out noble, comprehensive and ultimately indispensable work. Yet, too many among them live an almost hand-to-mouth existence. To take away their rightful visibility is to cause translators double damage, writes Italian translator Alessio Colonnelli.

“If there is one thing that unites the whole world in 2019, then it is the anger against governments; and this should make both governments and the public think hard, in particular the latter, who are rising up to challenge the former,” writes Ian Bremner in a recent Corriere della Sera article about the street demonstrations in the Middle East (November 9). Written by Bremner in Italian? Who knows. No translators mentioned.

Here’s another one, from la Repubblica (December 10, 2017). The Middle East, again. Marek Halter, a French writer born in 1936 – a Jew of Polish origin – comments on Donald Trump’s decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem as an irrefutable sign of Benjamin Netanyahu’s decline. Halter was a friend of Yitzhak Rabin, the former Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1995 by an extremist Jewish settler. Here we have another fundamental contribution from abroad for the benefit of Italian readers – a valuable opinion piece that the great Roman daily did well to relay. A quality newspaper consolidates its reputation by also going the extra mile like this: researching beyond national borders; sorting; and disseminating. You need a nose for that. Yet, neither source nor translator mentioned, though.

Let’s stay in the region; or rather on its doorstep, to put it better, since it plays a crucial role in Europe’s destiny. Headline: “How Turkey is erasing my voice” (la Repubblica, March 10, 2018). Turkish writer and dissenter Aslı Erdoğan tells us about an episode that happened to her whilst abroad shortly before, allowing her to understand how far Ankara authorities stretch to belittle her. The episode: at the Geneva summit on human rights, the moderator said that Erdoğan’s work had been translated into nine languages, when the actual number was twenty. The author didn’t intervene and instead let it pass.

Afterwards, back at the hotel, while checking the biographical notes on her books, she realized that the moderator had not incurred in a simple oversight: the Turkish publisher had indeed sent notes to Switzerland which dated back to 2003, before Erdoğan had become an award-winning writer over the next fifteen years. Someone wanted to make her look like a minor author, at the beginning of her career. Luckily for Erdoğan, the nasty dig fell short.

At the foot of the article by the Turkish intellectual – written in the first person and published simultaneously in various European newspapers – the translator’s name does not appear. The newspaper thus offers an unintentionally paradoxical reading, since you begin to suspect that it’s not only in Turkey that there’s a tendency to undermine the art of translation.

The articles mentioned so far were taken at random from my archive. In fact, there are countless others that are the same as these. Thousands. At the same time, I need to be clear that mine is a personal perception of a certain state of affairs, and not a commentary on the conclusions of a scientific study.

Fortunately though, the pieces where translators are credited are just as numerous. And in all honesty, in the Italian literary weekly Robinson the articles by the British novelists Julian Barnes and Howard Jacobson, the American director William Friedkin and those by many other international artists are always translated into Italian by equally well-known translators – Fabio Galimberti, Marzia Porta, Anna Bissanti, to name a few. But again, this is a literary publication. Translators have to be there; in that particular field – literary journalism – you can’t pretend they don’t exist.

Internazionale, the magazine publishing foreign press translations, functions in a similar way as Robinson; it puts the translator’s initials at the bottom of each column or feature piece: bt stands for Bruna Tortorella, for example (the translators’ full names are listed next to the summary). These two titles are of course the exception. For them, the translators are irreplaceable pillars.

This is not the case in the wider general press. When the translator is mentioned, the author is often Europe-wide famous, like Mario Vargas Llosa, Tahar Ben Jelloun or Timothy Garton Ash. And so you can also see how more men than women are translated. It’s a shame, because Italian newspapers’ voices are predominantly male and articles from abroad offer an opportunity of gender rebalancing, but this is not taken up. And so a basic question remains: what is the difference between publishing or omitting the translator’s name?

More questions arise in quick succession. Are the pieces rendered by an anonymous yet skillful hand, originally, qualitatively inferior? It would seem that they are not. The three mentioned articles above are not at all. Sloppiness, then? An unfair accusation: it doesn’t take into account the tight timescale against which editors often struggle; it doesn’t take into account reality. Is this sorry status quo to remain like this indefinitely?

Let’s really hope not. Also because by not quoting the translator – a professional wordsmith – you trigger the strong suspicion that the editorial staff has resorted to DIY tools, namely Google Translate. But who would be willing to admit it? It’s a well-known fact that online translators often commit legendary howlers, able as they are to leave out words or return an affirmative proposition with a negative one. It’s happened to everyone; but maybe not everyone’s noticed. You cannot suddenly pretend to be a translator if you were never one in the first place.

Having said that, it should be noted that even Italy’s ex-prime minister Matteo Renzi’s articles for the Guardian don’t credit any translators. And Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano’s don’t either, even if it could be assumed that the Neapolitan writer knows English well enough to write in it professionally (at least at a preliminary draft level). But doubts still remain, nevertheless: to be able to write convincingly in English you have to breathe in that language, day and night, for many a year. Nevertheless, the Kings Place daily has always wanted it known that Elena Ferrante’s articles have been translated by Ann Goldstein, who also translates her novels into English. You can see the literary link popping up again.

From that same archive of mine, there’s a long read by Beppe Severgnini for Der Spiegel, which appeared in the last issue of 2016. Well written, but above all masterly translated: you can recognize the clean and drumming style of the famous journalist from Crema (who also regularly appears on national telly). He muses over the merits and faults of Italy; explains why Italy resembles an opera house, Germany a symphony orchestra and why Europe needs both; but also why national dramas and recurring emergencies don’t really seem to bother Italians.

Only an Italian with Severgnini’s real international experience could paint the country in that way for the benefit of others who don’t know it first hand; and here writing and translating merge, pushing knowledge beyond obstacles, taking care not to snag it along the way, as though it were a precious textile to be presented as a gift. Geographical and cultural hurdles that is, like those between Milan (Severgnini’s home) and Hamburg (where the magazine’s headquartered): they can be overcome, if you have the know-how. Mission accomplished, in this case. The result of fine teamwork. Thanks goes also to the anonymous translator on shift duty.

And then I’ve remembered an article by the Iberian novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina on the Catalan crisis; published in 2015, by the same weekly. Again, no mention of any translators from Spanish, as if implying that Muñoz Molina wrote it straight in German. Does he really know that language so well? Maybe. Yet, readers have the right to know – after all, they paid!

In short, no one would ever dream of publishing a foreign article without stating who the author was; but it’s equally true that when an article is translated, half the time we don’t know by whom. But why is that? Is it because the piece wasn’t bought from another newspaper, and instead was written on commission? But even so, if the original piece is in a foreign language, someone must’ve made it readable – right?

All translators deserve a platform. They carry out a noble, comprehensive and ultimately indispensable work – without it we’d know a lot less about the Middle East, for instance. Yet, too many among them live an almost hand-to-mouth existence. To take away their rightful visibility is to cause translators double damage.


  • Alessio Colonnelli is an Italian freelance translator, writer and commentator on European political and social affairs, and a contributor to publications that include The New Statesman, The Independent, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post (UK), Foreign Policy and Politico Europe. His regularly updated blog, Thoughts on Europe, can be found here.


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