Skip to main content

Purchasers of novels published by Toronto's House of Anansi Press will no longer know if the books they buy are translated or not.

Starting with the recent publication of Quebec City-based Lise Bissonette's An Appropriate Place, Anansi will no longer carry the translator's name on the cover of books that originate in French.

Sheila Fischman, who has translated all of Bissonette's novels, was indignant when she learned of the new policy. "They say that the public will say, 'Oh, it's a translation, we won't buy it.' So they're going to pretend it's not a translation."

According to House of Anansi editor Martha Sharpe, this is more or less correct. "It's an acknowledgment that it's hard to get a readership to embrace a book that's translated. The more we talked to readers and booksellers the more we realized that [translation]is a strike against the book in the marketplace."

Since the late 1970s, when translators became militant on the issue, publishers in English Canada have agreed to print the translator's name prominently on the cover alongside the name of the author.

However, says Sharpe, the publisher does not have to do this. Its only legal obligation is to place the translator's name inside the book, on the title page. Anansi will continue to do so.

The object of removing the name from the book's cover, adds Sharpe, is to persuade readers at least to glance at a book before discovering that it was not originally written in English. "We want to give a book its best chance to reach a public," she says, adding that many readers dismiss translated books out of hand, just as many moviegoers refuse to attend a subtitled film.

Other Canadian publishers were surprised by the new Anansi policy. None of those contacted said that they were contemplating a similar move. "It's been our policy to include the translator's name on the cover," says Doug Gibson of McClelland and Stewart, adding that there had been no internal discussion of changing the policy.

"We don't have any plans to do that [drop translators' names]" says Diane Martin of Random House, adding that her company has just brought out its first translation of a Quebec novel, Gil Courtemanche's A Sunday by the Pool in Kigali, translated by Patricia Claxton.

Claxton was upset, however, that another publisher, Coach House Books, did drop her name from the cover of its recent re-issue of Nicole Brossard's The Blue Books. But Alanna Wilcox at Coach House Books says that this was a unique situation, where it was necessary to print three titles and two translators' names on the cover "and there wasn't room for everything, so we left the translators' names off."

She adds that Coach House is bringing out translations of two new books from Quebec and will put translators' names on the covers. "Our policy has not changed."

The issue has arisen in part because of financial chaos in the Canadian book industry. "Some of the publishers who agreed that we deserve recognition have disappeared," says Claxton, mentioning Coach House Press (the predecessor of the current Coach House Books) and Lester & Orpen Denys.

With the disappearance of many of the small Canadian publishers who were committed to making Quebec books available in English, the Canada Council has recently changed its policy of giving translation grants only to Canadian-owned publishers.

As a result, Random House (owned by the German company Bertelsmann) recently did its first translation of a Quebec book, Sunday by the Pool at Kigali, and is contemplating further such projects. "There are really good books being published in Quebec, and we're sure there's a market for them here," says Martin.

While she is "interested" in the House of Anansi policy, she believes that it can be an advantage to make it clear that a book is a translation. "Some translators have trusted names, which can be commercially advantageous. And while there is certainly part of the public which doesn't want to read translations, my feeling is that if they don't like them, why does making them think that it's not translated before they open the book make them more amenable to it?"

Translators are paid a lump sum to translate Canadian books. Part of this fee usually comes in the form of a subsidy from the federal or Quebec governments.

Since translators, unlike authors, do not receive royalties from book sales, they are not harmed if a book sells poorly. For this reason, says Wilcox, they do not share the publisher's concern that the book reach as many readers as possible.

Fischman, a Governor-General's Award-winner for translation, disagrees. "Booksellers tell me that having my name on a translation brings more sales. The translator is a known quantity, while the author may not be."

She believes that publishers have lost the enthusiasm that existed during the Trudeau era for bringing Quebec books into English Canada. "Publishers aren't doing their job and publicizing these books."

English Canada is unique in acknowledging translators on book covers. In Europe and the United States (and frequently in Quebec), translators' names appear only inside the book.