What affects the way we read books? thinking about authors, gender and translations

In my last post, I was looking at different covers for the same novel in translation across a range of languages, because I was wondering to what extent the cover image affects our expectations of the book inside. If the novel has a different cover, do we actually read it differently? could we even consider it to be a different novel? Think of the ‘adult’ versions of the covers for the Harry Potter series, or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – aside from being a marketing ploy, those different covers also implied that the version inside was a book for grown-ups, whereas the children’s versions weren’t.

Cover images aren’t the only thing to affect how we read books though; extra-textual (or real-life) information also has a bearing on how we approach narratives. One of my (many) side-interests is in the role that gender plays in a text – how characters’ genders are represented and embodied, for example, or how language reflects, configures and reveals gender – and a few years ago I wrote an article* about three novels where the main character or narrator is the opposite sex to the author. In these cases, the authors were women and the characters were male; one of my conclusions was that writing a character or narrator of a different gender was a way for these writers to signal overtly that these texts were fictional, as much women’s writing tends to be read as autobiographical in the first instance, even when it is fiction.

So I was fascinated to read Lois S. Bibbing’s account last week in the Times Higher Education of a typo which led to her book being reviewed as if it had been written by a man (namely Louis S. Bibbing, whom she has now adopted as an alter ego). She reflects on the history of such pseudonyms, with writers from Charlotte Brontë to J.K. Rowling as well as occasional male authors writing in genres traditionally considered ‘feminine’ choosing, or being advised, to modify their name for the book cover. While tickled by the slip in the journal Gender and History, of all places, Bibbing concludes that it is important for her academic perspective on her supposedly masculine subject matter – the military – that her book, Telling Tales about Men, be acknowledged as the work of a woman.

In a similar vein, I’ve also been wondering whether we read translated books differently: does the knowledge that the words we are reading have been translated from another language make us consider them differently? In the same way that it seems a residual awareness of the author’s real-life gender might affect how we read (or more pertinently, judge) a novel, perhaps a residual awareness that a story has been translated might make us view the language differently, perhaps with more curiosity, scepticism, or simply more distance.

That might be one excuse for the frequent failure of publishers to name translators on the covers of books – although even if that were the reason, it would say as much about expectations of translated literature as it does about the experience of reading translations. The translator is the person whose words you are reading, so if book covers matter at all, then it’s important that the translator’s name is on there.

* ‘Crossing Borders: Three Novels by Yadé Kara, Jeannette Lander and Terézia Mora’, in Gegenwartsliteratur, 8 (2009), 148–169

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