Why don’t books get translated?
If you think it’s because it’s hard to find willing translators, or because the skills required are too rare, I’d like to offer two case studies below that point to another explanation:
The reason translations don’t happen is that we prohibit them. That is to say, translations are what happens naturally, except when copyright restrictions suppress them.
If you’re skeptical, consider the following tale of two authors, one whose books are free to be translated by anyone, another whose books are not.
We’ll even stack the deck a bit. The author whose books are freely translatable will be a relatively minor author, one whose books are not, to be perfectly honest, of earth-shaking importance. Whereas some of the the books by the other author are acknowledged masterpieces in their original language, and you will see quotes from a prominent scholar about how the absence of translations is “one of the great intellectual scandals of our time”.
The first author is me. I’ve written two books, both available under free licenses, and although I’m proud of them and glad I wrote them, neither is of any great historical significance. The first, published in 1999, was a semi-technical manual on how to use some collaboration software. Despite its limited audience and my having put it online in a somewhat cumbersome format, several volunteer translation efforts sprang up quickly, and at least one (into German) was completed. The other efforts may have been completed as well; I’m not sure, and since the book is old now and I can’t read the translations anyway I haven’t bothered to track them down. Note I’m really just talking about the volunteer translations — the ones that people started because they wanted to, without asking anyone’s permission first. There was also a translation into Chinese, which was completed and which I have a paperback copy of, but we won’t count it as evidence here because it went through publisher-controlled channels.
My next book, first published in 2005, likewise appeals to a fairly limited audience: it’s about how to manage collaborative, open source software projects — I wasn’t exactly aiming for the top of the bestseller lists. But with the gracious cooperation of my publisher, O’Reilly Media, I put it online under a free license, this time in a somewhat more amenable format, and volunteer translation efforts sprang up almost immediately. Several of them have completed their translations: the Chinese, Japanese, Galician, German, Dutch, and French. The Spanish is almost done, and there are others still under way that I’m not even bothering to list here.
(Yes, by the way, some of those translations are available in high-quality commercial paper versions, and I have copies of them at home. Commercial activity is perfectly compatible with non-restrictive distribution models, as we have pointed out before.)
So… all this for a book on open source software collaboration? Really? What does this tell us?
Well, let’s look at a contrasting example.
The author Hans Günther Adler (published as “H.G. Adler”) died in 1988 having produced what are widely accepted as some of the core works of Holocaust literature in German. Very few of his works have been translated into English, but recently one, the novel Panorama, was published in English and was widely reviewed.
A look at two of the reviews shows why here at QuestionCopyright.org we consider reframing the public conversation around copyright to be our primary mission. Both reviewers — obviously intelligent, obviously in agreement about Adler’s significance, and writing for two of the most influential literary publications in the English language — comment on the shameful absence of Adler translations in English, yet collapse into a curious kind of passive voice when it comes to the reasons for that absence.
First, Judith Shulevitz in the New York Times:
Every so often, a book shocks you into realizing just how much effort and sheer luck was required to get it into your hands. “Panorama” was the first novel written by H.G. Adler, a German-speaking Jewish intellectual from Prague who survived a labor camp in Bohemia, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and a particularly hellish underground slave-labor camp called Langenstein, near Buchenwald. Adler wrote the first draft in less than two weeks in 1948… He wound up in England, but couldn’t find anyone willing to publish the book until 1968, 20 years and two drafts later. The book is coming out in English for the first time only now.
It’s hard to fathom why we had to wait so long. … [Adler] is almost entirely unknown in the English-speaking world. Only three of his books have been translated: a historical work, “Jews in Germany”; a novel called “The Journey”; and now, “Panorama.” That American and British readers have had such limited access to Adler’s writing and thought for so long is, as the eminent scholar of modern German literature Peter Demetz has written, “one of the great intellectual scandals of our time.” [emphasis added]
— “A Vanished World. Scenes from the narrator’s past are illuminated in H.G. Adler’s first novel, appearing only now in English.”
by Judith Shulevitz
New York Times Book Review, 30 January 2011
And this from Ruth Franklin writing for the New Yorker:
…Hermann Broch wrote that the book [“Theresienstadt 1941-1945”] would become the standard work on the subject, and that Adler’s “cool and precise method not only grasps all the essential details but manages further to indicate the extent of the horror in an extremely vivid form.” (The book was published in Germany in 1955 and quickly became a touchstone in German Holocaust studies, but it has never been translated into English.) [emphasis added]
— “The Long View: A rediscovered master of Holocaust writing.”
by Ruth Franklin
New Yorker, 31 January 2011
Now, to be fair, Shulevitz and Franklin were writing reviews of Adler’s work itself, not analyses of why those works have been so little translated into English. Yet it is striking that both choose to comment on the absence of translations, at some length, and yet they don’t speculate on the reasons at all. They merely describe the situation and express regret, as though it were bad weather. There is no outrage or frustration at the fact that the reason we don’t have those translations is simply that they have been suppressed before they could be started.
I’m not even going to put qualifiers like “probably” or “likely” before that. It should be treated as a finding of fact, at this point. If my books — my little tomes aimed a small sub-demographic of the software development world — get translated multiple times from English into languages with smaller readerships, then there is simply no way that H.G. Adler’s much more important books, on a much more important topic, would not have been translated from German into English already, if only anyone (or more importantly, any group) who had the ambition to do so had been free to. English and German have a huge overlap in terms of people fluent in both languages, and there is wide interest in Holocaust studies among speakers of both languages. Furthermore, there are non-profit and state funding sources that would have gladly supported the work. That happened even with mine, for example: the Dutch translation was published in book form by SURFnet, who paid the translators to guarantee completion. It would be incomprehensible if funding could be found for that but somehow not for Adler translations.
The fact that the reason for the lack of Adler translations — and the lack of translations for other important works — is not immediately understood by all to be copyright restrictions points a glaring weakness in public debate about copyright. Right now, translators can’t translate if they don’t secure the rights first, and since the default stance of copyright is that you don’t have those rights unless someone explicitly gives them to you, most potential translators give up without even trying. Or more likely, they never even think of trying, because they have become habituated to the permission-based culture. The process of merely tracking down whom to ask for permission is daunting enough, never mind the time-consuming and uncertain negotiations that ensue once you find them.
It is no wonder that so many worthy works remain untranslated, given these obstacles. But it is a wonder that we continue to hide our eyes from the reason why, even as it stares us in the face.