‘They Kill Translators, Don’t They?’

I often—perhaps too often—think about translation. Lately, I’ve been mulling the penchant of book reviewers to sigh about any text not originally in English (that they didn’t entirely love): Well, who knows, this was probably the fault of that translator.

So Elliott Colla’s delightful essay about translation (how often do you laugh out loud while reading a scholarly essay?) “Dragomen and Checkpoints” struck my sweet tooth. It came out last summer in ArteEast, but, ever behind, I just read it today.

Colla has a grittier, less lofty discussion of translation than one normally gets from literary types (of which he is definitely one). He talks about three categories of translator: translator as collaborator, as renegade, and as invisible man (which I’m sure he means in a gender-non-specific sort of way).

Collaborators: Well, in a world of empires and occupations, you can guess what he means by this.

Of “renegades,” Colla says: “These translators were not feared and resented because they were seen as working for the enemy, but rather because they did not hide the fact that they were working for themselves.”


Here we arrive at the core of the problem posed by translators, and what strikes fear in the hearts of those who have to depend on their services during fraught times. It is the terror of knowing that there is no such thing as neutral mediation.

Of the “invisible” translator (and most publishers seem to hope that literary translators will fall into this category), Colla says that there:

…are no explanations for the fact that more than a few Western scholars have spent their entire careers studying the Middle East but have little grasp of the languages there. Again, you might not realize this fact because they hide it as much as possible in their publications. In hiding it, they also have to hide their complete reliance on translations. The translator vanishes in the process.

In summary, he says:

Translation is not just how we might understand each other, it’s also how we conduct the business of conflict.

He doesn’t move from here into the world of literary/entertainment translations. But we can use our own imaginations. One can think, by extension, of some translator-collaborators in the world of pop-politics-entertainment: the Nonie Darwishs, the Ayaan Hirsi Alis. And certainly, as I said above, publishers often wish for the literary translator as invisible man/woman.

As for the renegade, the translator out working for him(or her)self, presumably this is what we reviewers most fear. What is that translator doing in there? What has she (or he) done to our pristine, perfect text? What are her prejudices, and aspirations, and aesthetic codes? Why won’t she come out, hands up?