On or around the 2nd of September, the Rome-based Italian publisher Newton Compton Editori placed the following announcement on its Facebook profile (where it has more than 3200 “friends”):
Seeking young female candidates (under 30) for an English-to-Italian translation test of the book, Pretty Little Liars (write to email@example.com).
The reactions from translators were instantaneous and furious, but the very first published comment to appear on Facebook was perhaps also the one that hit the nail most directly on the head. Wrote Elisa: “There’s an error in your ad. You forgot to say they had to be pretty, too.”
Indeed, announcements of this kind are par for the course in Italy, where the concept of the “bona fide occupational qualification” (BFOQ) is essentially unknown, and employers don’t think twice about informing job seekers that candidates of a particular sex, age, or national origin are not welcome. (In many places in the world, it is illegal to require demographic or physical characteristics that are not directly related to the ability to perform the job.)
Arguably, if a company needed someone who looked good in a string bikini to stand next to their sofas at an upcoming Milan trade fair, I suppose it could be said that being young, female, and Barbie-esque were genuine BFOQs (though it’s still tough to understand what any of those things have to do with selling sofas).
In the case of Newton Compton, which has been in the business for forty years, and of the two women responsible for writing and publishing the announcement—Newton Compton’s rights director, Carmen Prestia (who served for many years in the same capacity for Einaudi, one of Italy’s most illustrious and longest-lived publishing houses) and Martina Rinaldi, director of translations—an announcement limiting translation candidates to young women under thirty was all the more incomprehensible.
To its credit, Newton Compton responded immediately to the criticism. Responded—though to date it has yet to apologize for its ageist, sexist job announcement. (The posting has since been removed from Newton Compton’s FB page.)
What its representatives did say was that, gosh, they didn’t mean to offend anyone, that they work with translators of all ages and sexes, and that of course they’d normally be happy to consider applications from anyone at all. In this case though, they reaffirmed, “just this once,” they only wanted to hear from young women under thirty.
The reasoning, Newton Compton said, had to do with the “voice” they wanted the book to have in Italian and with finding that “je ne sais quoi” that makes a particular translator right for a certain text.
It almost sounds reasonable—until you spend two minutes thinking about it.
First, the insistence on candidates who are “young women under thirty” is nothing more than code for: “We’re looking for someone to exploit. We intend to pay next to nothing for this job, and we need someone with almost no experience who’ll accept just about any working conditions in order to get her foot in the door of literary publishing.” Since female translators vastly outnumber male translators, there’s no issue here of providing missing opportunities for women; rather, it’s a cynical admission that Newton Compton thinks young women are easier to take advantage of.
As an artistic and professional matter, meanwhile, Newton Compton’s desire to “find the right voice” for its translations is admirable. It’s the publisher’s strategy for achieving that goal that’s moronic.
The woman who translated Catcher in the Rye into Italian (for Einaudi, by the way), the late Adriana Motti, was well into her thirties when Il giovane Holden appeared; what she had in common with a depressed adolescent male prep-school drop out in New England was approximately nothing. The women who translate gay authors David Leavitt (Family Dancing) and Armistead Maupin (the Tales of the City/Racconti di San Francisco series) into Italian are not, as far as No Peanuts! has been able to determine, actually urban gay men living in America.
Moreover, these same women have all also translated an almost dizzying array of other authors, styles, and subjects: Delfina Vezzoli, the translator of Leavitt, has translated Robert Pirsig, Jonathan Coe, Nadeem Aslam, Anais Nin, Annie Proulx, and Harold Brodkey; the pair of women who translate Maupin into Italian, Elisabetta Humouda and Valentina Guani have, either singly or jointly, also translated Patricia Cornwell, John Le Carré, Joyce Carol Oates, Helen Oyeyemi, Dan Brown, and Caleb Carr.
Here again, we can only rely on the research publicly available on the internet, but it appears reasonable to state that Vezzoli, Humouda, and Guani are neither ex-pat Nigerians, aging British spies, American military historians, Pakistani former communists, forensic pathologists, Kissinger fellows at the Council on Foreign Relations, or members of New York’s haute intelligentsia. Nor—considering the cases of authors Pirsig, Coe, Brodkey, Le Carré, Brown, and Carr—are they men.
In other words, the idea that the “right” translator is the one who corresponds directly to the age, sex, or other demographic or social characteristics of the author or the characters of a piece of literature is the kind of chuckle-headed idiocy you’d expect to hear in a conversation between Faustino, the jolly barista at Café Miramare, and Ezio, the retired electrician, over a hot cuppa. It’s not what you imagine reading in a communication by a major publishing company.
Moreover, Newton Compton’s “clarification” is the demonstration that the company is either lying about the motivations for its “girls only” announcement or that it doesn’t understand the first thing about how translators work.
Or perhaps there’s a third hypothesis: that Newton Compton knows perfectly well how translation and translators work but has decided that lowering publishing standards in order to reduce the cost of producing books (by unleashing an avalanche of low-rate competition among untried translators desperate for a break) is a terrific twenty-first-century business strategy.
Whatever the reasons for the ill-conceived job announcement, it makes two things perfectly clear: a blatant disrespect for the work translators do and a truly cynical vision of the profession.
In the meantime, No Peanuts! is tempted to write to Sara Shepard, the author of Pretty Little Liars, to ask her what she has to say about Newton Compton’s ploy. According to her MySpace profile, her age is 33—much too old for Newton Compton to be publishing her books.