February 7, 2014

Arabic translator Jonathan Wright settles with Alaa al-Aswany, and why I’m glad Wright spoke up



When, this fall, Arabic translator Jonathan Wright posted an open letter on his blog detailing how very far things had gone south with his translation of Egyptian author Alaa al-Aswany’s novel, The Automobile Club, due to be published by Knopf Doubleday (part of Penguin Random House), a collective shudder went through the translation world.

Translators shuddered because what Wright experienced was a translator’s nightmare: he went from having a great (and even high profile) translation project by an author he’d worked with in the past and who he thought trusted him, to being pulled off the project, given entirely unconvincing explanations for the change in translators, and, to top it off, not being paid for the work he’d done up to that point.

Editors and publishers shuddered because their dirty laundry was out in public—I don’t think I’m probably alone in saying that the position of Wright’s Knopf editor, George Andreou, seemed all too close to home: expressing no doubt genuine (but ultimately toothless) enthusiasm at the prospect of working with Wright, then backtracking when al-Aswany changed his mind and decided to work with another translator, and possibly worst of all, having to apologize for and defend the decision even though al-Aswany’s reasons for rejecting Wright’s translation sample were tendentious at best.  Just to make this all a little more interesting, this trainwreck also involved al-Aswany’s agent, Andrew Wylie.

In other words, there were a lot of powerful people and entities in the conversation: a prominent best-selling author, a powerful agent, and a big US house. And then there was Wright, and his ruined relationship with al-Aswany, whose work he’d championed, whose political articles he had translated for a number of years, and who he respected personally.

Last week, Wright announced on his Facebook page that Random House had settled with him immediately, after he opened a lawsuit in England against them. This is good news for him in the short term, but I for one am glad that he went public before going to court.

And here’s why: all books are prone to disasters, fights, and acts of bad faith on the path to publication. But translations are, in some respects, far more likely to end up in such troubled waters, and that is because they involve large degrees of ignorance and trust.

Large verging on spectacular. Epic. Grand Canyon-esque.

Books are bought on reports, recommendations, and short samples. Translators are chosen based on recommendations, past work, and equally short samples. And many of the major parties involved often do not share a language. This means that the possibilities for havoc are manifold, and any experienced editor or translator who works in this field could tell a whole range of heart-breaking, teeth-gnashing, hair-gripping, manuscript-shredding stories to prove it.

But the correct response to this fundamentally thorny business is to try and avoid these situations in the future, not private rancor And you can’t avoid something if you don’t know that it’s happened before, or in a similar form. In other words, I think we need to hear more, so that the whole texture of author-translator-publisher relationships becomes something familiar and discussable, so that there is room, from the editorial side, to admit ignorance and yet make decisions, and from the translator side, to defend one’s approach on its merits, receive fair compensation, and just generally not be yanked around.

Not all of this needs to be about contracts, too. I’m glad, for instance, for the blog Authors & Translators, where authors talk about “their translators” and translators about “their authors”; the many versions of this relationship on the site mean that the spectrum’s out there, for further understanding, and the thing that can come after understanding: change.

But perhaps I’d better turn it over to an expert on that subject, Mr. David Bowie:

Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.