June 4, 2012

Rowling translators to the wall


On September 27th— just, no doubt, as Fifty Shades of Grey begins to pass somewhat more slowly across the counters of US bookstores—another British hamper will arrive, in the form of J.K. Rowling’s new novel, The Casual Vacancy, her first book officially announced as “for adults.” It’ll be a big day for booksellers here and the UK, but it may even be a bigger day for one Finnish translator (insane? brilliant? certainly, I hope, well paid and firmly contracted) who will be sitting down to translate the entire book, all 480 pages of English village politics angst, in three weeks. Having never seen the text before. Nor having ever translated a J.K. Rowling book before. Just describing this situation, by the way, is a great way to get an editor who works on translations to stop talking, if you ever want to do that. Our mouths hang prettily agape.

As discussed on the blog Intralingo, an unnamed Finnish translator who has translated a lot of Stephen King has agreed to translate the book by October 18th. Otava, the Finnish publishers, offered to let three translators work on the book simultaneously, but Jaana Kapari, the translator who translated the Harry Potter books, turned the prospect down.

Unsurprisingly, the translation path for previous Rowling books has not been smooth. Gili Bar Hillel, the Hebrew translator of the Harry Potter books, describes a meeting of the international translators of the Potter series where the “running theme was that of insult, hurt, and rage directed towards the Harry Potter machine—the wall of lawyers surrounding J.K. Rowling, her agents and Warner Bros.—who had gone out of their way to disenfranchise translators of their intellectual and moral rights.”

Her own experiences mainly consist of Warner Brothers demanding that she sign agreements waiving all rights to her translations, which were then used as subtitles for the dubbed movie versions without crediting or any other kind of compensation either to her or the Israeli publishers. This is bad enough, though, as she points out, translation copyright law varies from country to country and it may not have been illegal. But the agreements were presented to her without advance notice, with no chance for legal consultation, with the understanding that she had to sign now or the job would be given to another translator, and with threats of holding up payment not only to Hillel but also to other people.

Steven Goldstein of the Northern California Translators Association confirms, in two reports on the experiences of the Potter translators, that other translators have faced tight deadlines and the generally abusive presence of Warner Brothers. I read his description of how Warner restricted or even forbid the translation of some names, in order to make a global marketing campaign easier, with queasiness, after reading the Norwegian translator’s intelligent explanation of how they came up with an equivalent for “Dumbledore.” Yes, it does make a marketing campaign easier if the name is the same wherever it appears (especially if you’re putting it on merchandise, and no, I do not own a Dumbledore backpack), and beyond that, some names and some words become so familiar that they are absorbed into other languages—the French did not call the boy hero “Harry Potier.” At the same time, it does not seem like the right way to be going, to kick to the curb the beautiful solutions translators devise.

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