“The Hellish Conditions Endured” by Dan Brown’s Translators: Not A Joke

“The Hellish Conditions Endured” by Dan Brown’s Translators: Not A Joke

In case you missed it, The Telegraph recently reported on how Dan Brown’s latest novel, Inferno, was translated into other languages. The article begins:

“For two months, 11 translators of different nationalities were tucked away in an underground ‘bunker’ near Milan where they worked under the strictest security to translate Brown’s new book into French, German, Italian and other languages for its simultaneous release on May 14.”

This opening hook is full of things we literary translators can — and should — take umbrage at:

* A 580-page novel had to be translated in two months
* They had to work in an underground “bunker
* There was the presumption they would leak the story

The article goes on to say that to prevent any leaks, the translators did not have access to the Internet for research!

Just once, I would like to write an uplifting story about a blockbuster author and the translators dedicated to ensuring that a wildly famous book can be read by audiences all over the world. But it seems that one story prevails, and it is not a particularly happy one.

If you recall, last year I presented a guest post by Jill Timbers about the deplorable conditions JK Rowlings’ translators faced.

What I would like to know is the following…

* Were the copyeditors placed under similar restrictions? What about the typesetters? Printers? Book publicists? If a simple non-disclosure agreement is enough to keep these people “in-line,” why would that not work for translators? Is it because they’re “foreign”?

* And was the book designer forced to do his or her work, say, in two days? Or the copyeditor in a week? I mean, come on, how much time would they need if a translator can pound out 580 pages in two months? That’s 10 pages a day, every day, for 60 days. That’s about 2500 words a day. Of final, publish-ready text.

What are we, monkeys with typewriters?!

What’s worse, the article brings this situation to light as if it were an amusing anecdote rather than a serious comment on how little respect this author or his foreign language publishers have for the literary translator’s work.

There is no mention of what the translators earned in terms of fees and/or royalties, no word on whether they hold copyright or all of the other terms and conditions most professional associations promote. Given what we do know, I wonder whether these translators were treated as professionals and accorded their due.

I’m in the process of trying to find that out and will bring you what information I can.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts about the article and the whole situation. Do leave a comment!



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  1. Sick-making, isn’t it Lisa. Good Reads have been running a “what question would you like to ask Dan Brown” thing on Twitter. Perhaps we should all join in asking him if he knows about this, and if so, what he thinks of it. I’ve already done so…

    • @Rachel — Good for you for asking Dan Brown on Twitter what he thinks of what his translators went through! We do have to speak up.

    • Hi, Rachel

      …Good Reads which is now an Amazon outfit…

  2. No wonder the translations of such books are often disappointing. No time for proper research, no time to think about style…. Personally, I would refuse to work in such conditions.

    • @Marie-Josée — That’s exactly it! I’m sure Dan Brown’s publishing machine thinks this is the best way to go about things, but in the end he’s only harming his own reputation. Like you, this is a project I would not accept because it could hurt my reputation, too…

  3. Hmmm, that makes me wonder how much they were paid. I would love to know and sincerely hope it was worth their while to put up with such inhumane conditions.

    • @Barbara — Yes, we’d like to think that the translators got something out of this experience: decent fees, proper credit, royalties. But with so little respect being shown for their actual work, I fear that may not be the case. :-(

    • inhumane… And Intellectually OFFENSIVE! A disgrace…

  4. As one of the fellow translator said on Twitter – Dante himself would have been impressed with this. One of the many things that surprised me is that it wasn’t enough to sign confidentiality agreement with translators as usual. It is said that they didn’t have access to their phones, notebooks, and Internet access. They even had to check out with security if they wanted to go outside of the bunker and smoke a cigarette or just clear their minds. Sounds like very inhuman working conditions. I wouldn’t accept offer like this for so many reasons (one of them being obvious author’s lack of interest in obtaining translation quality).

    • @Aleks — Ha! I hadn’t seen that tweet, but it’s certainly fitting! It seems many of us are on the same page about this situation. It’s really too bad the reading public and the author himself seem so unconcerned, though.

  5. As a professional translator, I find this appalling, in particular the restriction on Internet use. If this novel is as intricate as Brown’s previous ones, I can’t even imagine how it would be possible to produce an accurate translation without research. As for the time constraint, as the saying goes in the industry, you can have two out of three of speed, price, or quality. Which one do you bet will be lacking?

    • @Ann Marie — I agree completely with all of your points. Thank you so much for sharing them. 😉

  6. Hi, Lisa… Thank you again for the info. Did you ever contact the translators of the Rowling’s novel as a follow up? This would be great to have the feedback from the teams who worked for DB.

    All this illustrates how little intellectual and humanistic progress has been made when it comes down to translators and their contribution to open the world to authors, bad and good, who would otherwise be limited to their local readership. I know only of one terrific, decent author who has enough brain (heart) and integrity to treat his translators as partners to his success: David Grossman (To the End of the Land, translated into English by Jessica Cohen). If there are more out there claiming the same, stand up and be counted! There are the publishing industry criteria (not intellectually oriented) on one hand, and the authors’ common unwillingness to give credit to their “foreign voices,” their translators. People who are confident in the worth of their work do not feel ” threatened” by sharing the credits (and hopefully the gains) with those who are instrumental to their international reach. In a society (worlwide) that had never benefited so much from so many (often free) tools and means to access to knowledge and culture, we witness every day more and more barbaric darkness, less and less value given to intellectual endeavors and humanistic activities. Coming from those who claim to be intellectually inclined, it’s mind boggling, and definitely not encouraging… They call it the bottom line… indeed, we can’t go lower! Cheers!

  7. Hello Lisa,

    I am still shuddering at the thought that anyone would agree to work in a bunker (irrespective of how lucrative the offer may be), after being insulted as to their ability to maintain confidentiality. Not to mention the idea of a 60-day week, when those of us who have put ourselves through long-term project know, one needs a day off at least once every 21 days or so!

    I agree with everything you say. I am assuming that the translators are not permitted to divulge the fact that they translated the book at all. Does anyone know who these translators are?

    As to not using the Internet, I am speechless.

    This kind of article merely serves to warp the public image (such as it is) of the translation profession, and in one fell swoop does a pretty good job of negating the good work that you do in raising the profile of literary translators, something which I am not.

    I would love to re-blog your article. Please let me know if that would be in order.

    • Marylene, I’m not sure why this comment wasn’t originally approved. I only just now found it in the spam folder. My apologies! The links are excellent. Thank you for sharing!



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