Needing a Translator

Photo still from LA Story, Steve Martin rollerskating through LACMA.

We’d been skyping for months, both really enjoying it, I think — my husband kept noticing how much laughter was coming from the room where the really big computer lives. I was translating Lambert’s book, The Visibility of the Image, essentially his dissertation in philosophy, now very much in his past. The book had been in print in German for more than a decade and already gone into its second edition. But to Anglophones, this would be a debut. I thought his English on Skype was superb. At least I admired his absolute fearlessness about speaking English, in sharp contrast to my own paralyzing concern for sounding “right,” or “accurate” in German. He wrote to me in German, so it was not an issue.  I was so impressed that at one point I said I wasn’t absolutely sure he needed a translator. He disagreed.


When we’d settled on a text for the book, I sent it to the publisher.  From this point on, the translator effectively acts as author, resolving all, or most, tussles with the copyeditor, compiling an index, and seeing the book through production. Depending on the publisher, either translator or author or both may then return for design or marketing decisions. We had a really nice publisher, with human beings in charge. They let us actually translate the German title into English (This is not a foregone conclusion). They put my name on the cover (This is not a foregone conclusion either, but I didn’t know it then). Then came the question about the cover image for, although German-language philosophy books do not have images on their covers, English-language philosophy books invariably do.


Lambert knew of some collage work he thought would suit the book well, and I liked it too, but he couldn’t find the artist to get permission. The book, The Visibility of the Image, is, as you can imagine, very abstract, a kind of history of looking at images. One key feature — one I was considering carefully for the first time — is the amount of time you have, or take, to look at an image. Lambert argues that at present, in contemporary video clips, for example, you can often only see the images, not actually recognize them or get meaning from them, because there isn’t enough time.  In terms of a cover for our book, what came to mind was the photo still from the film LA Story of Steve Martin roller skating through the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (see above).


I never told Lambert about that one.  It is pretty silly.


Then Lambert had another idea.  He sent an image — the artist was Silke Rehberg — to me and to the designers.  Everyone loved it immediately. Of course the publishers’ next question was how they could get in touch with the artist. “It is not a problem,” Lambert answered, “We are married since many years.”

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