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Resources for Writers

Cover Story – Translating the Image

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Article by Barry Houlihan ©.
Posted in Resources (, ).

Browsing around your local book shop may be an art in decline. Scrolling around your e-book site and pressing ‘click to buy’ is a relatively new trend and if recent details of the decline in sales in on-street book shops are taken into the account then the turn to digital format books will only increase. (See recent article by Bob Johnston, owner of the Gutter Bookshop in Dublin, published on the Bookseller blog here )

When deciding how best to part with your cash for a decent new read, what is it that attracts you to a particular book and how does it grab your attention? You may pay attention to recent reviews in the papers or recommendations from friends, colleagues, and favourite bloggers or from your book club. Others hit the streets and dedicate some time to pacing up and down the aisles and rows of their local book seller, waiting for inspiration or for that book to catch their eye, like a old friend in a crowded street.

The snobbier readers among us will flatly deny that a book cover is what first grabs your eye and will refute that a cover can influence a sale, judging a book by its cover and all that. But let’s face it; a creative, interesting and artistic cover is a hugely important factor. Getting that book into your hand to read the blurb, even if you don’t buy, is success for a book jacket designer. Looking at the design of the cover revels a lot about how the book is marketed as well as what it tries to express about the book it happily encloses.

Look at what dominates the cover? Is it the authors name or the title of the book? Is it accolades previously won by the book or snippets of blurb from reviews? Is it a particular image that represents a central character or theme from the book? Whatever it is, there is always a major draw to the book jacket that must catch the readers eye. This is an aspect of sales that e-books can never have. They are essentially invisible until you type in your search for that particular book or author. Browsing virtual book stores is not nearly as satisfying!

Translating a book is a sure sign of success for an author. Sending that work to an international audience is a test of the writing and the ability for a non-native audience to react and engage with a particular issue or story.  When it comes to translating a particular book, the language is obviously a strikingly difficult prospect and challenge for a translator. An understanding and relationship with the author is important is establishing control on the tone and translation of a particular book. Translating the text is one aspect but how does translating the book cover and cover image reflect this international translation? What works as a cover image in reflecting the book in one country perhaps will not engage readers in other cultures.

It is interesting to look at international examples of translated Irish novels and see how the covers are treated in the international perspective. Particular characteristics or themes in the cover of a novel may grab and engage a reader in Ireland more so than those same characteristics would throughout Europe or Asia. With modern best sellers often becoming global phenomenons, what sells these works must be prioritised on the cover. A recent example of an international fiction bestseller could be “the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”. With this trilogy, the name of the work has superseded the author to some extent. I wonder, is the name as Stieg Larsson as readily on the tip on one’s tongue as the name of the book is. The branding around these works centres on the phrasing “the Girl Who…” or “The Girl With…” This mass-market fiction centres on more than just translating the story; the whole design from cover, to font to size is considered upon to the last detail.

The images you see throughout this piece are just a few examples of well known Irish novels and collections of short stories that were greatly received and mass translated.  Seeing these works with new covers and in different languages removes that initial connection we as (Irish) English-language readers of these works have established in reading them in their first printing. There is more to translating than just the text; the whole design must change with it.

emma-donohugh-cover                                          colm-mccann-cover

Turkish edition of “Room” by Emma Donoghue       French edition of Impac Award Winning “Let the Great World Spin” by Colm McCann

john-mcgahern-cover                                         clare-keegan-cover

French edition of “Amongst Women” by John McGahern   German edition of Claire Keegan’s “Walk the Blue Fields”

For anyone thinking about cover design, seeing how differently the same book can look when aimed at an international audience will give you an idea of just how important covers are, and how your book will perceived by your buyer. Obviously, as these covers show, cover design is an essential part of selling a book.


(c) Barry Houlahan, June 2011

Barry Houlihan is a professional archivist and specialises in theatre and literary archives. He has catalogued the Project Arts Centre archive (1967-2003) at the National Library of Ireland, established an archive for the Gaiety School of Acting in Dublin and produced a research guide on the history of Smock Alley Theatre. Barry has worked as a researcher for ‘Cultureshock’ program on Newstalk FM radio and also recently acted as researcher for the RTE Radio 1 documentary series ‘From Stage to Street’. Barry is currently working for NUI Galway Library where he is cataloguing the archives of Druid Theatre Company and the Galway Arts Festival.