The Invisible, Accountable, Translator

The invisibility of the translator is an oft-discussed topic in this industry. It is something we try to combat with our ‘Translator of the Week’ blogs. Sadly, translation is one of the few professions where the actual professionals, who train for years to become qualified, remain completely unacknowledged by most. However, this is not always the case with literary translation. Many have heard of the odd translation which has been deemed better than the original. Or which has won an award, and in these cases the translator will get some well-deserved credit.

Translator’s lack of invisibility

One case in which the opposite – the translator’s lack of invisibility – can be a problem arose recently in Turkey. According to Turkey’s publishing laws, a translator can be considered as accountable as an author for the content they translate. Suha Sertabiboğlu, the translator of William S. Burroughs’ The Soft Machine and its Turkish publisher are currently on trial for writing and publishing pornography. They face a prison sentence of up to three years.

Those familiar with Burroughs’ work will know that it is heavily focused on drug addiction. It is not something which is suitable to be read by children. Some would consider his work obscene, but whether that makes it pornographic is another question entirely. I think it is fairly safe to say that most people would now class Burroughs’ work as ‘literature’. Although it was a different matter when first written, and that is what the ongoing trial is currently trying to establish.

Fear of prosecution

I’m not going to get into the wider freedom of speech implications here. I’m just interested in what this means for translators. Personally, I think the fact that proceedings has even been started is quite a frightening prospect for many linguists. Does this mean that translators would now have to turn down work on texts which are even slightly provocative, through fear of prosecution?

Though I doubt many countries would follow suit. This is something that could make a lot of translators question which jobs they accept. Some would already refuse an assignment which conflicted with their personal ethics. What if a text they would otherwise accept is offensive to certain groups? Should they refuse it in case they are held accountable for causing offence?

I think this is a worrying precedent, and I really do hope for a favourable outcome for the translator and publisher involved. What are your opinions on this?