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.”
It’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.