Acquiring translation funding for Dr. Bethune’s Children -- our second book translated into English from Chinese – was a big step in the right direction. There remain other challenges, however, facing a Canadian-authored book translated by a Canadian from a language other than French or English.
Literary prizes have assumed such importance in this country that books that are not shortlisted for a prize have a tendency to disappear once the shortlists and then the prize-winners are announced. Booksellers are less likely to stock them, and will return unsold copies for the full price, as they are entitled to do. Event and festival organizers will be less likely to invite the author to appear, being far more interested in those authors that have succeeded in the literary prize lottery. The book is likely to languish.
One of the most important of these prizes – and one of the very few that award a prize for literary translation – are the Governor General’s Literary Awards, which are administered by the Canada Council. Here the game is stacked against translations from any language other than English and French, as you will see, for the criteria for French-to-English translations read as follows:
“Books must have been written or translated by Canadian citizens or permanent residents of Canada. They do not need to be residing in Canada. In the Translation category, the original work, written in French, must also be a Canadian-authored title.”
The original work must therefore have been written in English for the English-French translation award (and in English, for the English-French translation award). Again, the author and the translator must be a Canadian citizen or permanent resident, and the original work must have been published.
I called the Canada Council and spoke to the person who manages the Governor General’s awards. Can I submit Shenzheners – the short story collection published last year – in the fiction category, I asked. No, you can’t. Why not? Because it’s a translation, and translations cannot be submitted in the fiction category.
So, I persisted, is the book eligible for the translation prize, then?
So that was that. And that remains that, not only for Shenzheners but also for the novel, Dr. Bethune’s Children. And the same rule applies to any book written in one of Canada’s Indigenous languages. Not eligible.
It’s 2017. Something needs to be done about this, as it is unjust to the author, to the translator, and to the publisher.
I have suggested to the Canada Council that this should change, And I am speaking out about this in an effort to hasten that change, though it is too late to help the books we have already published.
The public for translations from languages other than French or English
One of the reasons that it seems worth fighting the injustice in the treatment of translations from other languages is that there are writers in this country who work in languages other than French and English. We don’t even know how many such writers there are, or what languages they are all working in, but this is a nation of immigrants, and the number is surely growing. We need to know those stories just as much as we need to know the stories of prairie ranchers and Maritime fishers, not to mention Toronto hipsters and Montreal journalists.
Publishing such translations is risky for a publisher for several reasons. First, there are specifically literary issues that the author and the translator were wrestling with in preparing the manuscripts of Shenzheners and Dr. Bethune’s Children for the press. Not being able to read Chinese, I was not able to contribute to these discussions until the manuscript was well-advanced in English, but these issues complicate the process of translation in ways that we are much less likely to encounter in working between French and English, where many of us are sufficiently literate in both languages to understand the issues at hand and, if need be, contribute to finding a solution.
A related, and prior issue, is that I was unable to read the original manuscripts of these two books, as I cannot read Chinese. I had seen a translation of the first chapter of the novel, or just two stories in the case of Shenzheners, but that was not enough to allow me to judge the quality of the book as a whole. In both cases – in all cases, for the same Canadian translator is starting next summer on a third work originally published in Chinese, this time by the Taiwanese-Montreal writer Chih-Ying Lay – I have to depend on the translator’s judgement. This can be a substantial risk, although I have learned that I can indeed trust Darryl Sterk’s judgment. I should add the translator, like the author, does, of course, have a vested interest in the publication of a translation. It would therefore be preferable, in principle, to have an editor fluent in the original language rather than having to depend on the translator.
The issues that are often uppermost in the mind of a publisher, however, are related to a book’s prospects in the marketplace. Often the author of a book in Arabic may well be unfamiliar to readers across the country, for a start, which will make book promotion challenging, especially if that author is not able to do media in either English or French. Commercial challenges remain, however, even if the author is a household name, and both fluent in the target language (English or French) and media savvy.
While the cost of paying the translator is covered by a translation grant, there remain substantial costs to the publisher in preparing a book for publication: costs for design, production, distribution, sales, shipping, promotion, advertising, and much else besides. These are costs that the publisher has no way of recouping except through sales, and even at the best of times – e.g. a French-English translation by a bestselling author with a national reputation – translations are notorious for selling poorly. When the very possibility of a literary award is ruled out – as is it by the Governor General’s Literary Awards, the Quebec Writers’ Federation Translation Prize, and the many other awards in this country that follow the example of the Canada Council in their eligibility criteria (as most do), you can expect that a work in translation will lose money.
I hope that some of this will prove helpful to those of you interested in issues of translation from Arabic. Some of it may seem discouraging, and there are certainly challenges, but I would leave you with the example of Xue Yiwei, who was entirely unknown when I signed my first contract with him in 2015, and is no longer unknown.
He has now had two books published in English, both well received by reviewers and critics locally and nationally. Shenzheners managed to win an award against all the odds, and Dr. Bethune’s Children was named one of the Best 100 Books of 2017 by The Globe and Mail, and Yiwei appeared on the cover of Montreal Review of Books with a long cover feature by a respected writer. Yiwei and his novel are also the subject of a recent feature article in the Books section of The New York Times that promptly resulted in his being invited to participate in the Sydney Writers’ Festival in Australia, in a China Institute event in New York City, and a string of other events in Canada and abroad. The novel has now attracted the attention of a New York literary agent who is currently approaching foreign publishers to buy the rights to publish the translation internationally. Our fingers are crossed that this is one work in translation that will sell well.
It ain’t easy, in other words, but it is possible, and when things start to happen, as they occasionally do, they can happen fast.
© 2017, Linda Leith
Linda Leith thanks Sherry Simon, Kathryn Henderson, and the TAAM-TAIM collective for the invitation to participate in Traduire l'arabe.