About 12 years ago, when I was just starting out as a freelance translator, I got a job translating a film script from Icelandic into English. It was written by a young up-and-coming filmmaker [who has since gone on to make a couple of attention-grabbing films] and the translation was commissioned by the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service. The script was to be entered into a pan-European scriptwriting competition held by the national broadcasting services of all European nations and it had to be in English. A couple of months later it was announced that this particular script had won the competition, which was a fairly big deal and got considerable press coverage. Nowhere, however, was there mention of a translator, or indeed, a translation.
I was kinda peeved about that. Not only had I given my best to the assignment, but having my name associated with a prize-winning script would have been really helpful to me at the time. I was new to the trade, assignments were not exactly coming in on a conveyor belt, and I was supporting a small child on my own. So I called up the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service to ask why my name as translator hadn’t been included – wasn’t it common practice to have a translator’s name associated with his or her work? The Director of Domestic programming, whom I was put through to, was extremely defensive, bordering on hostile. No, they did not see the point in mentioning the translator because it wasn’t about the translation, it was about the script. I started to protest, at which he cut me off with the immortal phrase: Þú ert bara þýðandi úti í bæ sem færð greitt fyrir þína vinnu. Which basically translates as: “You’re just some translator who has been paid for your work.” Ah. Thank you for clarifying that.
This incident came to mind last week when I attended the opening of an exhibition held in connection with the Reykjavík Arts Festival. The exhibition – and opening – was at one of Iceland’s most highly-regarded cultural institutions, and a rather lavish catalogue – a book, really – had been published to accompany the exhibition. YT had been commissioned to translate all the text in the book – a significant body of work.
At the opening, the director of this particular institution, who by virtue of her role is one of the main pillars of Icelandic culture, stood up to make a speech. She spoke briefly about the exhibition, then turned her attention to the book, remarking how proud of it she was [deservedly so] and enthusing about all the people involved in making it happen. She cited the names of all the artists featured in the book, the editor, the co-editor, the person who wrote the text, the person who wrote the introduction, and finally, the designer.
Not a word about the translator. This despite the fact that 100 percent of the text in the book was translated, the translation had taken several weeks to complete and had cost this particular institution hundreds of thousands of Icelandic kronur [ISK 100,000 = USD 1,400 / EUR 900]. The translator was a nonentity.
This is merely one example of many, many.
Let’s ponder for a moment what Icelandic society would be like if there were no translators. For one thing, instruction manuals, packaging and such would be in a language other than Icelandic. Seeing as how most consumer goods are imported, that might create a few problems. The vast majority of television programmes and movies would be incomprehensible to a large part of the population. Communication with exporters abroad would be difficult at best, so imports to this country would presumably be severely limited. Icelandic companies and insitutions would not easily be able to promote themselves overseas, so export revenues for this country would be neglible. Foreign cooperation in just about every sector – defense, education, economics, communications, health, culture, arts, science, judicial – would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. Icelandic writers and artists would not be able to promote their work outside of Iceland, and similarly Icelanders would not have the benefit of reading works from other cultures in their own language. The tourism sector would be set back by about a century.
In short, this country would regress back to the dark ages.
Most translators work independently and therefore we don’t have the resources to make our voice heard. But does that automatically mean that our work should be insivible? Or dismissed? Or not given the credit it deserves? I wonder if there will ever be an awakening concerning our important contribution to this society. Obviously things have clearly not changed much over the last 12 years, so alas, I am not very hopeful.
BLUSTERY BUT MILD OUT THERE
Overcast and it’s been threatening to rain, although I’ve yet to see a drop. Apparently we’re in the midst of an Icelandic-style heatwave, wOOt! Yesterday was heavenly, for example, and we wouldn’t mind a bit more sun later today or tomorrow. Right now we have 11°C [52F] with sunrise this morning at 3.38, sunset scheduled for 11.13 this evening.