Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

*Update 15 Jan: it really does help to talk about these issues, following this post and lovely Twitter support, Ann Morgan emailed the Guardian and the article has been amended to include all translators’ names. Fantastic!


Absolutely delighted to see that Beauty on Earth was highlighted in yesterday’s Guardian by Ann Morgan (of Reading the World, a marvelous project-turned-book). Morgan lists ten of her favorite titles from among the 196 she read for her project. The other books on this list look wonderful as well, and I’m now quite keen to read The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins and The Circle of Karma by Choden Kunzang.

It’s really great when ten books like this get talked about, books that often don’t get a lot of formal publicity. But I wanted to highlight that six of these books are translations, and I was disappointed to see that only one translator was named.

I’m not pointing a finger at Ann Morgan here because she has struck me as keenly aware of how important the role of translation is in bringing books from around the world into larger discussions through English-language publication. In her Ted Talk she tells a fantastic story about how she managed to read a book from São Tomé and Príncipe (which had no existing literature in English that she could find) only because a bunch of translators actually translated one for her so that she could.

I don’t know if this was the case for the other five translations on Morgan’s list as it was for my work with Ramuz, but it’s been my general experience that many (maybe even most) translations get published because the translator has actively hunted down a publisher for the book. Unfortunately, these books are often not commercially interesting to publishers, or many publishers just don’t know where to look or don’t have the time to hunt down interesting foreign language titles. (I am excluding from that thought the wonderful translation-only publishers that are growing in number all the time.) I do think things have been changing in recent years, for the better, which is maybe why I was so surprised to see this list somewhat overlook the translator/translation aspect.

It seems evident to me that most readers understand and accept the fact that translators deserve a mention beside the author because a book inevitably changes through the work of translation, it is only one version of what that book might look like in another language; this is the main reason I think translators must be mentioned. My version of Beauty on Earth is just one way of rewriting the novel in English, it is just one possibility. I think it’s important this distinction always remains clear–this honors the work of both the author and the translator. But I also think that translators especially deserve this mention because of how much they champion and support the books they love.

In any case, here is the list again, this time with the translators included.

  • The Circle of Karma by Choden Kunzang
  • Beauty on Earth by Charles Ferdinand Ramuz, tr. Michelle Bailat-Jones
  • Our Musseque by Jose Luandino Vieira, tr. Robin Patterson
  • African Delights by Siphiwo Mahala
  • Smile as they Bow by Nu Nu Yi, tr. Alfred Birnbaum and Thi Thi Aye
  • The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad
  • The Ladies are Upstairs by Merle Collins
  • By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel, tr. Jethro Soutar
  • Martha, Jack & Shanco by Caryl Lewis, tr. Gwen Davies
  • Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa, tr. Edith Grossman

2 Responses to “Naming the translator”

  1. Anthony

    I’ll read your Ramuz translation this year. Having enjoyed your own book so very much I wanted to keep the two voices apart. Does that make any sense? Anyhow it’s been just over a year since I read your book, while in Tokyo, so time for your Ramuz soon.

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