As part of the Year of International Reading, I thought it would be a fun exercise to look at the covers for translated novels. Specifically, this post deals with the covers given to books that have been translated into English. I won’t be looking at the imagery, though. I’ll be focusing on the text available on these covers and talking (generally) about those.
YAY! Lynn is actually including pictures in something! The books are taken from a variety of genres to help showcase that the way English publishers handle translated covers tends to be similar. You’ll see similar trends in books translated from English into other languages. I’m focusing on English covers because that’s the language sphere I’m most familiar with, is the most accessible across the world and where I’m seeing conversations about diversity and translated works happening. These trends are, to the best of my knowledge, present and common within the Western cultural areas, but I can’t speak for other areas in the world.
Some More Introductory Information
As I just said, the trends in the images below are, to the best of my knowledge, a sign of a global trend in the way we treat translators. Traditionally, translators have a very difficult job with very little in the way of recognition. A book, after all, is all about the original author and their intent, right? And translators, even the best of them, can only offer their interpretation of what the author said. For better or for worse, publishers from any market often chose to minimise the visibility of the translator. A translator gets their name on the copyright page and, possibly, sometimes, in the acknowledgements, but they rarely get their name listed on the cover.
General markers of international origin on the cover are:
- the author’s name and/or spelling — though this means somewhat less in the melting pot/salad bowl that is the US
- descriptions of being an international bestseller — though this also happens to really popular books first published in English
- descriptions of being a bestseller within its own country — though this is restricted to large countries with a lot of inhabitants
- descriptions of winning international awards — again, most likely to be a large country’s award or an American-organised award
- A ‘translated by’ note — this happens once in a blue moon (i.e. pretty much only whenever the translator is well-known enough to warrant it)
And I think that’s it. Translated covers are designed to look like any other cover. We don’t want their foreignness to be instantly recognisable. If you want to know if a book’s been translated, your best bet is the copyright page. It doesn’t matter if an author is widely known to be a non-native speaker and the books, per force, translated. The only name you’ll see on the cover is that of the author.
You’ll see this even with academic books. You know those nice Penguin editions that get put onto college reading lists and those lovely academic reprints with critical essays and background information and explanatory notes?
They frequently don’t list the translator on the front cover either. They do regularly include information about the translator on the back cover in place of an author biography, however. This is partially because there are a heck of a lot of different translations for the classics and, as an academically minded reader, the buyer probably cares who translated the book. After all, if you want to compare Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf to Tolkien’s, Burton Raffel won’t quite cut it. It’s very handy to be able to tell at a glance whose translation you’ve got in your hands.
In fact, I think I’ll add two more covers to the mix just to include a wider range: the covers for Heaney and Tolkien’s Beowulf translations.
Here you go. Two covers for Beowulf. Now, we don’t know the name of the poet who wrote Beowulf. There’s a good chance that covers will omit “Anonymous” in favour of the translator’s name, especially if, in the case of these two examples, the translators are well-known. I’ll let you explore the wonderful world of Beowulf covers for yourself. Here‘s a start with an Amazon search.
These kinds of translations where the author isn’t known are the biggest exception to what I’m about to say about covers for translated books. YAY, exceptions! Other exceptions include authors who translated their own books.
Exceptions? Oh, yes. Things are a-changing. Maybe.
As just said, books like Beowulf translations tend to be an exception. There are some more. Here’s a handy list.
- Academic works by anonymous authors
- Authors who’ve translated their own works
- Translators who have a good, strong reputation of their own
- Newer publishers who think translators should get cover credit
In looking at covers to include in this post I came across AmazonCrossing, a publication imprint by Amazon that focuses on and specialises in translated works. These books may include a “translated by” line on the front of the cover (At a glance I’d say it’s about a 50/50 chance.). They don’t always. Some only have the author’s name on it. I don’t know quite how AmazonCrossing decides it, but I’d assume it has to do with the translator’s own fame and/or contracts with the translator requiring the information to be added.
While AmazonCrossing isn’t the only imprint to add the translator’s name to the front cover, they seem to do it more consistently than other, established publishers. For example: out of the 28 translated books that were available on Canongate’s own webshop when I checked, 1 listed the translator. Several listed the author of a preface or a foreword, but only 1 book put the translator’s name on the cover. Out of the 27 listed on AmazonCrossing’s ‘site’ before the search results begin, about 16 have a translator listed on the front cover. That’s over half of the books they’ve highlighted on their main page. (Granted it’s not far past over half, but still. It’s a heck of a lot more than a single book.)
I’ll get back to this later. For now I just wanted to let you all know the exception existed because I’d like to think it marks a change in the trend.
It’s All About Those Covers, Those Covers
Sorry. I couldn’t resist. But here. Let me start by showing you the covers for Cixin Liu’s The Three-body Problem and The Dark Forest because they were such a big part of the SFF scene last year, what with the Hugos and everything.
You may have to embiggen it to see what I’m getting at. In the case of The Three-body Problem, I’ve included the audio book covers I could find purely because the last one, which is released by Avid Audio, lacks any mention of Ken Liu’s name whereas the other four all mention include it. (If you’re curious; the first audiobook includes Ken Liu’s name, but not the narrator. The second includes the narrator’s name, but not Ken Liu’s.)
The first one we see has Ken Liu’s name beside Cixin Liu’s in a slightly smaller print. The second one has Ken Liu’s name directly beneath Cixin Liu’s name and is much smaller. The third cover is the one that interests me most. Both Cixin Liu and Ken Liu get a line to themselves and, as with the other covers, Ken Liu’s name is in smaller print. Unlike the other covers, this one explicitly mentions both the awards won by Cixin Liu in China and the ones that Ken Liu won in the US.
But are Ken Liu’s awards relevant information?
Well, yes and no. The answer is complicated. Translators need to be good wordsmiths. Literal translations usually won’t provide a good reading experience. Grammar differs between even closely related languages. Sentences flow differently in one language than they do in another. Yes, again even if the languages are closely related. Translators need to decide whether to be true to the original flow or to present the new target audience with something more akin to what they’re used to reading. Knowing that Ken Liu’s prose is smooth and good enough to win critical acclaim on its own is absolutely relevant information. It tells us something about what we can expect, after all. It suggests to people familiar with Liu’s work that here is something comparable. Even that here is something that will read as smoothly as the translator’s own work.
But those awards Ken Liu won also reflect narrative appeal and characterisation, and, in that sense, the information is pretty much irrelevant as anything other than the suggestion that if you like Ken Liu’s ideas, you’ll probably enjoy this because he liked it enough to translate it. But Liu’s skills at creating a plot, character dynamics, dialogue… All those essential parts of writing? He didn’t write those. It’s not his story.
It’s his interpretation of a story, which in a roundabout way, makes the awards relevant again since we cannot discard the fact that Liu’s translation reflects his interpretation of the characters. What he’s read one way, another translator might have read differently. Their work would reflect those interpretations to greater and lesser extent and influence, in turn, how we read it. (This is why translated academic texts tend to have so many.)
So it’s not that simple an answer. Further complicating things is that most of the initial buzz I saw from bloggers was all about Ken Liu’s skills as a translator rather than the contents of the book. This is quite possibly a case where my memory has focused on that element too much, but both the marketing and the initial buzz were more than happy to mention Ken Liu’s name and it wasn’t until the buzz died a little and people started to look at the book more critically that posts discussing the book started to focus on the actual story. Most translations and translators aren’t met with nearly as much acknowledgement or excitement. (In fact, they’re lucky to get acknowledged at all by bloggers. If they’re mentioned, it’s usually a throw-away line. Quite understandable, really. If you don’t know the original, what can you say about the act of the translation? You can say the prose reads smoothly or choppily, but only in relation to other books in the same language. You can’t say anything about how true the book is to the original or what’s been changed, etc.)
I’ll get back to this with another example later. For now, let’s move on to book 2 in the trilogy.
Here we have the cover for The Dark Forest, the sequel to The Three-body Problem. You’ll notice that it has a different translator, Joel Martinsen and he’s also listed on the cover. As will become clear from the 100+ covers that are to follow, this is not usual. I posit that his inclusion is based largely on the fact that Ken Liu’s name was on the cover and it would make the series branding look horrible if they didn’t include it.
This post consists largely of me grumping and grousing, but this is something that I am actually excited about. Translation is a really dificult job and one goes widely unrecognised as being particularly tough. Seeing a cover that honours a translator’s work so prominently? Loved that. Seeing a big, traditinal publishing company include the information? Marvellous! Seeing the Hugos not just list the translators but hand them awards to acknowlegde their work? OMG MIND BLOWN WITH UNEXPECTED AWESOME! I’ve done translation work and still sometimes do literary translations of short work for the heck of it, so I know how hard it is. Seeing the translators get honoured like that, even if I’m cynical about why, is precious and I would love to see more of this. I’d love to see translators get more credit for the job they do.
And then I found another cover for an upcoming release, also by Tor coincidentally. I won’t include the cover itself, but I’ll include the link to the cover reveal for it. This is a bit of a tangent, but it’s a relevant tangent, I promise!
That book is the upcoming translated novel, HEX by Thomas Olde Heuvelt. You can see the cover reveal from early in 2015 here. Do read the text as well. I’m going to play Spot the Differences in a moment.
This the cover reveal for The Three-body Problem and here is the one for The Dark Forest. Notice that the cover for HEX makes no mention of the translator. (Amazon lists the translator as Nancy Forest-Flier.) Further, neither the cover reveal for HEX nor the one for The Dark Forest mention the translator in the body text. The cover reveal for The Three-body Problem, however, does and, again, does so by drawing attention to the fact that Ken Liu is an award-winning author in his own right.
Cynic that I am, I will posit that this is because Ken Liu, unlike Nancy Forest-Flier or Joel Martinsen, is a well-known name in the American SFF community and mentioning his name in conjunction with the book encourages sales.
Have another example of quite why I think that.
These are the English-language covers I count find for Angélica Gorodischer, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin. You’ll notice that Le Guin’s name is listed as the translator, though not given as much prominence as Gorodischer’s. There are no descriptions of how Le Guin is an award-winning author. (I’d argue that, being Le Guin, there’s no real need for it either. You’ll probably know her name as a giant in SFF even if you’ve never read any of her works.)
Not pictures, but also important, is that Gorodischer’s Trafalgar was translated by Amalia Gladhart and her name has appeared on the cover of all the English-language covers Amazon offered me in a quick search. YAY! See, sometimes publishers do mention translators on the cover!
But, here, let’s move on to a slightly more well-known book than Kalpa Imperial. Let’s look at another famous fantasy novel. You may have heard of it, though you may not have realised it was a book.
The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. There are scads and scads more covers of his work. This is just a selection to showcase that Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story gets both kinds of covers. The first three don’t list the translator. The last two do. The translation of those two is by Ralph Manheim. You may not have heard of him, but he has a translation award named after him and won numerous translation awards for his work. He even has a wikipedia page! Contrast this book with one of Ende’s other translations in English: Momo.
Momo has been translated twice. Once under the title The Grey Men and onto under the title Momo. None of these covers list the translation. Remember that Ralph Manheim’s translation of The Neverending Story did warrant that inclusion. Eventually. Sometimes. The translators for Momo? Not a whisper of their presence.
And that, sadly, is going to be the trend you’ll find in most of these reasonably well-known to famous international books. We’ll have one more exception before then, though.
Selma Lagerlöf’s The Wonderful Adventures of Nils. Which lists the translator of Velma Swanston Howard on one of its numerous English covers. As near as I can tell, there isn’t much to be easily found about Swanston Howard. She died in the 1930s, however. And I can discover nothing about the publisher of that particular edition. (Possibly because I fail at googling.)
So let’s move on! I’ll go lighter on the commentary from hereon out purely because there isn’t a whole lot to say about the translator’s position on the covers. They’re not there!
Sergei Lukyanenko’s The Night Watch. Four covers, none with the translator’s name. Though one features “The extraordinary bestseller from Russia”. That cover also includes the “Now a major motion picture!”
Andri Snær Magnason’s Lovestar. There’s a blurb quote at the bottom, but that’s pretty much it.
Okay, so The Manga Guide to… series isn’t actually one author. I’m including it as another example of how series branding looks. You have the author, the illustration and the company. And that’s it!
Possibly one of the most famous translated novels of modern times, Gabriel García Márquez. None of the covers mention the translator. And before you ask, yes, I went through all the covers I could find to be sure there weren’t editions which did have the translator’s name on there. I should probably have mentioned that sooner? Almost all covers come from LibraryThing.
Of special interest on this set of covers, though, is that one of them omits the accents in Màrquez’s name. This is something that I used to see relatively often on translated books and no longer see so much of. The cover image looks a bit dated, so it could easily be an older one. (Again, despite the fact that I probably sound really grumpy, this is exciting to me! Covers are spelling authors’ names right. You’ll still have some of that issue with authors whose names are written in a different script to Latin, true, but it’s progress.)
The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers. Again, they have the title, the author and a blurb, but no mention of the translator.
The Map of Time by Félix Palma. Again, you’ll notice that one of the covers doesn’t include the accent and two of them are mentioned as being international bestsellers.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Oh, no. I see that I have lied. There’s one more book with a translator on the cover. This one. One of the covers lists the translator (Alan Wakeman) and the author of the foreword (Michael Foreman). You can read a fascinating account of the history of translations for The Little Prince here.
Adrzej Sapkowski’s The Last Wish, the first in The Witcher series. Technically it’s a prequel anthology, but hey. This book’s major claim to fame is the video game franchise, which, if I recall, is what saw the Polish books get translated into English. As the game franchise caught on, some of the reprint covers took over imagery from the game. I haven’t played it, so I can’t say whether they’re stills or specifically made for the books, but they’re visibly the same.
None of the covers mention the translator, though one of them mentions the book winning the first ever David Gemmell Legend Award and one of them talks about “A European superstar, in English for the first time”. I don’t know if this is accurate because Europe is not actually a monolith and he may be well-known in some European countries but be completely untranslated and unknown in others.
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Both covers mention that the book is a major motion picture. One mentions that the book has won a prize, the other includes a subtitle and a blurb quote. Neither mention the translator.
How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Saša Stanišić. I’d like to note that both these covers keep the diacritics intact. Huzzah! But neither include the name of the translator.
Perfume by Patrick Süskind. Another very well-known, turned-into-a-film book. With no translator’s names on the covers anywhere!
Okay, so Codename Sailor V and Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon are two different (if related) manga. They’re by the same author, Naoko Takeuchi, and these covers are indicative of the rest of the series. The background image and the volume numbers differ and, in the case of PGSM, the overall colour scheme. But that’s it. No translators’s names make any appearance on the cover. That’s almost certainly due to how little the publisher touched the cover design to begin with.
Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi.
Miss Chopsticks by Xinran. I assume that the Chinese characters are the title and the author’s name, but as I don’t speak Chinese this is a guess. The placement suggests it, though, and I’d be sorely disappointed if the designer just threw random characters onto the image.
ETA #2: After more digging @quartzen discovered that the characters are likely indeed the original title. We’re still not 100% sure, but it looks likely. That makes a really nice change from the other titles, though it also seems like a way designed to draw attention to the “exotic”ness of the book since we see it with Natsuo Kirino’s Out as well? I’ve only got two examples, so I can hardly call it a trend, especially since it definitely didn’t happen with The Three-body Problem.
Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Guess what’s not found on any of the above five covers. That’s right. The translator! It does mention the book being a national bestseller and a NYT bestseller, though.
Thea Beckman’s Crusade in Jeans. No translator mentioned. Since one of the covers is by Lemniscaat (a Dutch publisher) and the tie-in cover for an international film release, that surprises me a little. But only a little. It’s pretty par the course, after all.
Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes. I bet you’ve heard of this one! Did you know the film was based on a French novel? Now you do! Notice that the first Penguin cover doesn’t list the translator despite being part of their more academic set of books with introductory essays and notes. Notice also that the Penguin covers arethe only ones that don’t add the information about The Bridge over the River Kwai. And most of them mention the film.
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Prior to The Three-body Problem the last non-English novel to be nominated for a major science fiction award. There are no translators mentioned anywhere, but also no mention of the awards. Huh.
Wish by CLAMP. Again a manga. Again no translator. Again the major differences between the volumes are the number, the background image and the colour scheme.
The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt. Has also been made into a film, if you’re curious. No translator is mentioned, but the copy I have does list it as an internationl bestseller. It’s sold over a million copies! (Er, I’m not trying to be snide there. It actually says that and it is an amazing feat.) Really looking forward to seeing how I like this next year! It’s on my pile.
Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. Listed as both a national besteller and a worldwide bestseller, and aldo listed as “now a major film”. But no translator names.
Inkheart and Inkspell by Cornelia Funke. Again, this is a look at how covers look across series. Neither book mentions the translator, though they mention Funke’s other (successful) English-language books and the fact that it’s an international bestseller. I believe some of the covers for Inkheart also mentioned the film, but I seem not to have included any. The film, though the winner of an IFMCA Award for its soundtrack, was received fairly negatively. If it’s seen as a big flop, it’d make sense to minimise association.
Hella S. Haasse’s The Tea Lords. No translators anywhere. You may have noticed that I sometimes only tell you the author and the title. That’s because the books all follow the same pattern of not mentioning the translator anywhere.
Markus Heitz’s Righteous Fury.
Isabel Hoving’s The Dream Merchant.
Natsuo Kirino’s The Goddess Chronicle and Out. Notable is that one of the covers for The Goddess Chronicle lists Kirino as the bestselling author of Out, which is an entirely different genre. The covers for Out, meanwhile, list the awards Kirino won with it and one of them has the title written in katakana.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. One cover lists the books sold as more than 7.5 million copies worldwide. One lists it as NYT bestseller and one as an international bestseller. None reference the film.
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. One of the books lists the illustrator, but none list the translator.
Yrsa Sigurdardóttir’s Last Rituals. Two of the three covers mention that the book is an international bestseller and none of them mention the translator.
And lastly, but by no means least, Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. Lots of mentions of it being a major film and it being an international bestseller. But, you guessed it, no translator was mentioned.
So Let’s Recap Our List of Translated Novels
Out of the 41 individual books mentioned in this post, 6 books have had translators listed on the covers. Most of those books have had multiple covers and, on most of those covers, the translators name was not mentioned. Out of the 117 covers I’ve included, 12 covers have titles.
And because you may have guessed that I like percentages: That’s 14.4% of all the covers I featured.
The translators on the covers were:
- Ken Liu
- Joel Martinsen
- Ralph Manheim
- Ursula K. Le Guin
- Velma Swanston Howard
- Alan Wakeman
Of those, half of the translators are well-known in their own right (Liu, Le Guin, Manheim). One (Wakeman) translated what is widely considered to be a French classic and Wikipedia kindly informs me The Little Prince is the third-most translated novel in the world and one of the bestselling books ever. It’s a book where who translated it really, really, really, really, really matters to a lot of people. Two (Joel Martinsen and Velma Swanston Howard) are, as far as I can tell, unknown quantities and have, as of yet, little fame for their work. Not pictured but mentioned is Amalia Gladhart who ups the percentages to about 16.6%.
Basically my conclusion here is that translators get very little cover love (unlike narrators, illustrators and people who write prefaces/introductions) and when they do get mentioned, it’s more likely to be because putting their name on the cover sells. It’s a bit like a blurb text endorsing the book: this well-known person whose work I liked loved this, so it must be good! (Except now the well-known person didn’t just spend the time reading it, they devoted even more time to translating it so we could read it too!)
Just to remind you: not including the translator’s name on the cover of a book is not restricted to the English-language publishing sphere. It happens a lot. It’s why international people I saw talking about it were so happy when the Sasquan Administration decided to give out additional Hugo rockets to the translators. THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN. CAN WE KEEP IT?
List of Authors for Handy Reference
And because I’m a completionist let’s end this post on another list. This time, it’s a list of all the authors I mentioned in the post, exception Beowulf. Just in case you wanted to look up their works in general.
In order of appearance:
- Cixin Liu (The Three-body Problem, The Dark Forest)
- Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Hex)
- Angélica Gorodischer (Kalpa Imperial)
- Michael Ende (The Neverending Story, Momo/The Grey Gentlemen)
- Selma Lagerlöf (The Wonderful Adventures of Nils)
- Sergei Lukyanenko (The Night Watch)
- Andri Snær Magnason (Lovestar)
- The Manga Guide to… series
- Gabriel García Márquez (Love in the Time of Cholera)
- Walter Moers (The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear)
- Félix Palma (The Map of Time)
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (The Little Price)
- Adrzej Sapkowski (The Last Wish)
- Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis)
- Saša Stanišić (How the Soldier Repaired the Gramophone)
- Patrick Süskind (Perfume)
- Naoko Takeuchi (Codename Sailor V, Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon 1)
- Nahoko Uehashi (Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit)
- Xinran (Miss Chopsticks)
- Isabel Allende (The House of the Spirits)
- Thea Beckman (Crusade in Jeans)
- Pierre Boulle (Planet of the Apes)
- Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities)
- CLAMP (Wish)
- Tonke Dragt (The Letter for the King)
- Laura Esquivel (Like Water for Chocolate)
- Cornelia Funke (Inkheart, Inkspell)
- Hella S. Haasse (The Tea Lords)
- Markus Heitz (Righteous Fury)
- Isabel Hoving (The Dream Merchants)
- Tove Jansson (Moominland Midwinter)
- Natsuo Kirino (The Goddess Chronicle, Out)
- Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
- Astrid Lindgren (Pippi Longstocking)
- Yrsa Sigurdardóttir (Last Rituals)
- John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In)
And there you are. A look at a lot of translated covers and how they’re handled. I’d like to end this on another iteration that, despite this post focusing solely on translations into English, it is not something restricted to English language publishers. Other countries also opt to exclude translators’ names from the front cover most of the time.
As I understand the (English) market, it’s unfortunately the case that foreign books and translations don’t sell. I wouldn’t be surprised to find this holds true in other book markets as well. By including the name of the translator on the cover, we signal to a buyer that this book they’re holding in their hands (yes, this very one) is Other. That the author is Other. That the author’s writing in informed by other cultural norms. That they may value different things, their writing be incomprehensible because of it. And people put them down, unbought, because foreigner cooties are scary. It also reminds us that we’re not reader the author’s story. We’re reading the translator’s interpretation of that story. We’re reading officially endorsed fanfiction and there’s no guarantee that a book will be translated as-is or whether the publisher will want the author/translator to make changes to help ensure that the book is more marketable. And they do ask it of authors. They may make their publishing deals hinge on those changes even.
Which is actually quite a different topic from whether or not books list the name of the translators on the cover, so let’s move on and back to the point I was making: translated books sell demonstrably badly. So explicitly marking books out as a translation does not look like a sound marketing strategy.
In recent years the English-language blogging sphere has grown increasingly interested in promoting and presenting diverse books (however you want to define diverse), so making it clear that a book is a translation may garner more sales from that area of book buyers. The question is whether that movement is, as of yet, large enough to change the numbers. I have no idea since I don’t have those numbers, but I’d like to think that it’s large enough to make a start. We’re starting to see a similar shift with the cover images being more inclusive, so… I’d like to think that this too is slowly shifting.