Arnon Grunberg
Words Without Borders

The Author's Voice and the Translator's

Recently, I traveled to Paris to assist my publisher there with the promotion of one of my novels that had been translated into French. Any excuse to visit Paris is a good excuse.
It's easy to forget the hardship of the publicist. The publicist has to promote books that other people decided were worth publishing. I know a book reviewer in the US who, as a matter of principle, never returns phone calls from publicists. Actually, this reviewer deletes messages from publicists without listening to them. So I can understand the bitterness suffered by some of the people working at publicity departments.
My Parisian publicist was joyful and endowed with the gift of realistic optimism.
Like politicians, diplomats and most royalty, authors on book tour have to eat and drink a lot. It varies from country to country, but my understanding is that in France, eating together is as important as talking about the book.
While drinking some wine in a famous Parisian café, I engaged in a discussion about translation with a group of translators. For once it was not about the difficulties of finding readers for serious literature in translation, but about the role of the translator. One translator said that the translator is an underestimated person who works to hard for too little money and who is ignored by readers, critics and many authors. Too many people don't realize that translating is interpreting.
Another translator said: "I work on behalf of the author. The reader should not read my translation but the work of the author in a language that the reader is able to read."
As an author who is utterly dependent on translators—a few of my translators have become economically dependent on my output but that's another matter—I agree that translators are underpaid and often treated as the busboys of literature. But in the end, indeed, the reader should not read or hear the voice of the translator but the author's voice.
Before my stay in Paris came to an end, I had another interesting discussion over a copious lunch.
A journalist expressed surprise about a scene in my novel in which the father of a teenage girl hands a towel to a young man who he discovers in his bathroom early in the morning.
The journalist said: "French fathers are more conservative. They would not like the fact that their daughters have male guests over night without their consent."
"But this is 2009," I replied. "What do they say when they find a man unexpectedly in the bathroom: "No towel for you"?"
I wondered whether translators should also take cultural differences into account. Should my French translator think about the fact that most French fathers don't make light of young men who unexpectedly use their bathtubs?