‘Re-working the Translation is Entirely the Author’s Prerogative’

In a comment on “Making It Visible: Jonathan Wright on (Not) Translating Alaa al-Aswany’s ‘Automobile Club’,” reader Martin Sa’ada made the comment — about the dispute between Marilyn Booth, Penguin, and Rajaa Alsanea — that, “Well, it’s the author’s work, and re-working the translation is entirely the author’s prerogative; I’m not sure the translator should be lecturing the author regarding what the book is supposed to mean.”

iicmanager_upload_img_londra_traduzioni3It’s perhaps a common view: The original text “belongs” to the author, and therefore any translations of the text also belong to the author, who has a moral right to alter it as she sees fit. Translations are, here, simple extensions of the original, and the author maintains the same creative rights over these as she does over the original. The translator is simply jobbing for the author and publisher — doing “work for hire” — and is not crafting her or his own creative work.

Sa’ada continued, in a second comment, that, ” it seemed like Booth was essentially trying to tell the author about the novel’s ‘spirit and political resonance’, when that’s for the author to determine.”

Sa’ada added: “Yes, some authors don’t have the skill set to determine the quality of the translation (in all fields, not just literature…). Are they being silly/foolish/egotistical? Absolutely…..but it’s still their right to do. As long as I get paid, I grit my teeth and bear it (although I have asked to have my name removed from jobs that were revised so horribly that I did not want to be associated with the final end product).”

Booth ultimately did not remove her name from the project. As she wrote in a letter to the Times Literary Supplement: “Of course, my decision to retain my name on the title page (the only decision about the text’s final shape that the publisher allowed me !) means that I remain partly responsible for a work that I was given no authority, ultimately, to craft.”

Should a translator have a moral right over the text, authority over its craft? In his commentary on the al-Aswany v. Jonathan Wright debate, M.A. Orthofer makes a strong case against the “jobbing” view of translation. As he points out, translator Tiina Nunnally writes, in Rule #3 of her “translators’ rules”:

3. Don’t sign a book contract that includes the term “work-for-hire.”

The contract should included provisions for a translator advance, a royalty, and benefits from other subsidiary rights. The translation should be copyrighted in your name.

Clearly, the best of all possible worlds is one where the author and translator work together to craft the best possible text. Nonetheless, it matters whether the translator can assert some control over the text, or whether it is wholly the domain of the author and publisher.

Your thoughts?


  1. I don’t think Martin Sa’ada has properly understood the nature of Aswany’s objections to my work. These were transparently an attempt to circumvent his financial obligations, nothing to do with the spirit of the work or the author’s vision. This is obvious to the casual observer. Leaving that aside, I don’t think Aswany is fully capable of judging the quality of an English translation, so even if he has the theoretical right to impose his views, his agents and publishers should be doing their best to persuade him to defer to wiser judgments. Besides, my contract, which his agent approved, gave him no right to intervene.

    1. Yes, & perhaps that was my fault, but beyond this particular case. Does he (or any other author) have the “theoretical right” to impose their views?

      1. In the end I think this is a legal question rather than a moral or abstract question. Authors who assert and exercise their legal right to impose their views might end up without any translated version or with a greatly inferior one – that’s their choice. Wise ones defer to those with expertise in the target language and at the most offer discreet guidance when they are confident that they have a contribution to make.

  2. Being both a translator and an author, I see it as important that the spirit of what the author wants to convey should be maintained. Otherwise there is no sense in the book being translated.

    For example, if a book on some politics is translated and the translation conveys a different spirit than the original, it can lead to lawsuits against the (innocent) author.

    If a Buddhist writes a book on Buddha as the god, he would not want a Christian’s view to be conveyed in his book, or the other way round.

    In creative writing or writiing on other popular subjects the author has something specific he or she is feeling or has experienced, that he or she wants to share with other which can be spoilt by a ‘wise’ translator.

    Lastly, would you like it if you shared your opinion here and a translator comes and changes the spirit of what you wanted to say?! 🙂

    1. People translate blog posts from here with regularity, and I have never checked up on them; honestly, it is the least of my concerns. If it were a work that I had crafted over time, surely I would want to be involved in choosing the translator. Beyond that, I would have to leave the creation of a new thing in the translator’s hands.

  3. I entirely agree that the target-language text is the translator’s work and that the author of the source-language text is not free to intervene, except advisedly when requested so to do by either the translator (e.g., for clarification) or – with far less liberty – by the editor. There are in fact international conventions that recognize this principle.

    I have experienced source-language author interventions first hand in a series of Arabic language essays that I have translated (and published), with which the source language author was permitted more or less free editorial range. The translator of the first volume of that author’s essays issued by the press in question was so disturbed by the source-language author’s interventions that whoever he or she was requested not to be credited on the title page. I am credited on two of the subsequent volumes, but I, too, eventually became so nonplussed by the source-language author’s peremptory interventions into my texts that I was finally moved to request that my name not appear on the third (and last) volume of that writer’s essays that I translated for that press. This was not entirely out of pique at someone interfering in my writing. Instead it was from a sense of responsibility to the text and to the craft itself.

    As for my responsibility to the text, my main objection was that the author’s expressive, lyrical, and elegant Arabic was not matched by his adequate but largely hackneyed and cliched English. Yet he insisted upon imposing his notions of correct stylistics upon my English, on every page changing my diction for turns of phrase that I would never use for their bland banality.

    Just as bad was that he would also tone down many of his forceful observations about modern Egyptian society or even worse excise them entirely, usually in so doing undercutting his own arguments as present in the source language texts. To me, this was unconscionable.

    As to the craft, I had been asked several times (once by a researcher into that author’s writings) why my translation was not more faithful to the original. I felt that I had a responsibility to render the meanings of the texts as closely as the source-language author had presented them in Arabic, but with his interventions, they ended up saying quite a bit less than the original works had done. What is more, given the queries that I had received about the translations that had appeared under my name, I feared that I would be held accountable for the differences in the translation that were in no sense my doing. Finally, as a teacher of Arabic translation, I could not countenance a text being released under my name that exhibited so many of the violations of style that I had warned my students against.

    I have published in a scholarly volume (which probably explains its obscurity) an account of my dispute with the author, largely carried out through the intermediary offices of the editors at the press, with examples of his texts, my drafts, and the English texts that finally saw light in the published works. If anyone interested, I can send the citation.

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