(NEW YORK)– Literary translation is a creative art form that connects cultures across borders and languages with the unique potential to illuminate the effects of globalization and to impact injustices and power disparities worldwide, according to a new “manifesto” issued by PEN America’s Translation Committee.

In 1970, the P.E.N. American Center, as PEN America was known at the time, hosted  the first international conference on literary translation held in the United States. In preparation for that event, the Translation Committee adopted a manifesto that included a Translator’s Bill of Rights calling for better compensation, including an honorarium for the cost of dictionaries. In 2020, PEN America commemorated the 50th anniversary of the conference with another landmark event, Translating the Future, a convening of translators from around the world online during the Covid lockdown for conversations over the course of 20 weeks.

As the global pandemic emphasized our interconnectedness and the death of George Floyd emphasized our division, a group of U.S.-based translators from PEN America’s Translation Committee was already deeply engaged in updating the manifesto for the anniversary.

The new manifesto states that while much has advanced for the profession over more than half a century, change has come too slowly and on some concerns, not at all. This manifesto outlines the potential to bring about accelerated change, asserting that translators should embrace the “transformative potential” of their work and must use their skills explicitly to have greater impact on calling attention to the effects of globalization and to historic and persistent injustice and power disparities. For example, in 1969, there was no mention of race or gender in the manifesto bill of rights. In 2023, the document recognizes that both are critical to the future of translation.

Allison Markin Powell, a member of the Translation Committee who led the group that drafted the manifesto, said: “The manifesto’s call to action emphasizes that translation is a form of writing, full stop. That it must be sustainable as a livelihood.  And that all stakeholders in this community–translators, authors, editors, publishers, reviewers, educators, and readers–have responsibilities among themselves and to each other to create a stable and supportive environment for the exchange of ideas.”

Powell said one example is that translators should be granted legal and moral rights as creators of their work, in the form of copyright as well as royalties and subsidiary rights. She said authors and publishers can collaborate to include the translator as a beneficiary in the ongoing success of a work published in translation.

The manifesto also calls broadly for more access to the field for translators of color who have historically been excluded, and for a reckoning on how race and racialized language are translated. “Translators, publishers, editors, and readers have a responsibility to examine the types of literature that are and are not being translated from different languages and cultures, including the inequities—in terms of both quantity and content—between literature by white authors and authors of color,” the document states.

Recent surveys by the Authors Guild and the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) reveal that the vast majority of literary translators identify as white (83% for the Authors Guild and 73% for the ALTA); 11% of respondents to ALTA’s survey identified as Asian, 10% as Hispanic/Latino, 4% as Middle Eastern/North African, and 2% as Black.

The manifesto notes a disparity in the backgrounds of both authors translated, and among translators. It says at least twice as many works by men are published in translation, and while women translators greatly outnumber men translators, men receive as many if not more book contracts.

In recent years the Warwick Prize for Women in Translation and the shortlists for prestigious translation prizes such as the International Booker have featured a high number of women authors and translators. However, the document states: “These high-profile translations obscure the fact that at least twice as many books in English translation by men authors are still consistently published in the U.S. in comparison to books by women authors.”

The manifesto challenges what it views as basic misconceptions in the public mind about what translators do, saying translation must be viewed as a “specialized form of writing” that draws on translators “aesthetic sensibilities and interpretations.”

Powell, who has translated books by Japanese authors Hiromi Kawakami and Kaoru Takamura and served as co-chair of the PEN Translation Committee, said: “With so much attention focused recently on machine translation and AI-generated content, it is important to acknowledge that these apps are still not capable of replacing humans as literary translators. Moreover, because this technology is trained on human-generated works, it becomes all the more important for translators to maintain and protect their rights over their creations.”

The manifesto encourages readers to recognize their own roles within this community and to demand that libraries and bookstores carry works in translation and include translators in literary events. In addition, it urges authors, professional organizations and universities, teachers, and book reviewers, to highlight and engage with the work of translators in meaningful ways.

At this year’s World Voices Festival in New York City, there will be a roundtable discussion of the 2023 Manifesto on Translation featuring Jennifer Croft, who was awarded the International Booker Prize for her translation of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s novel, Flights, and Anton Hur, PEN/Heim Award translation grant winner, along with other leading translators and editors working in the United States. The event will take place on Sat., May 13th and tackle the crucial questions raised in the manifesto; How can we understand translation as an inherently political act? How do we teach, review, and study translation in a way that honors the cultural contexts of the practice?

Also at the festival the Translation Slam returns on Thursday, May 11, featuring competing translations of texts in Chinese and Spanish, by two translators in each language and, for the first time, ChatGPT.  

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

About the PEN America Translation Committee

The PEN America Translation Committee advocates on behalf of literary translators, working to foster a wider understanding of their art and offering professional resources for translators, publishers, critics, and others with an interest in international literature and ideas.