Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Life, Fate and BBC adaptations: the case of Robert Chandler

On Sunday the 4th of September I received a message from Robert Chandler.  You might know Robert for his translations of (among others) Grossman, Platonov, Pushkin and Apollinaire; you might recall his post here on Vulpes Libris about translating Everything Flows (link).  Here is his message, reproduced with permission, in full:

Many of you will know that the BBC is about to do a long dramatization of Vasily Grossman’s LIFE AND FATE. This is based on my translation of the novel. This is a dramatization, not a reading, and therefore it does not use only the words of my translation. Nevertheless, most episodes use a large number of my words, and at least one – The Last Letter – uses few, if any, words that are not mine.

If you read through this press release, you will find credit duly given to directors, producers, dramatizers, actors, composers and players of music. There are no prizes for guessing who is not mentioned: the invisible translator.

Some of you will have noticed that this seemingly wilful ignoring of the role of translators is a part of the culture of the BBC. If you listen to a translated novel on the programme “Book at Bedtime”, the translator is usually credited after, on average, one in five episodes – whereas both reader and adaptor will be mentioned after each episode. And it is the same with all too many programmes.

Nowadays no respectable newspaper or journal treats translators in such a cavalier manner. Why the BBC behaves in this way I do not know – but I think it is important that we do what we can to change things. I’ll be very grateful to everyone who can write a brief letter of complaint. Here is an email address:

In the words of the Unesco Nairobi Recommendation on the Legal Protection of Translators (1976), “the protection of translators is indispensable in order to ensure translations of the quality needed from them to fulfil effectively their role in the service of culture and development.” In other words, if translators remain as undervalued as they generally are, it is very difficult for them to earn a living. And if it is difficult for them to earn a living, it means that much good literature either gets translated badly or does not get translated at all. Which is a loss for all of us.

Robert’s email received a warm response from his friends, colleagues and supporters.  As one (anonymous) writer responded:

How frustrating.  I am hugely sympathetic.  Sadly, this behaviour is typical of the BBC, who display a lordly disdain for craftsmanship of all kinds — but especially the kind of skills which make things possible, and without which their stars and attending orbiting egos could not shine.

Three days later, Robert’s particular case was resolved.  As he wrote:

MANY THANKS to everyone who wrote to the BBC about the omission of my name from the press release for the forthcoming Radio 4 dramatization of Life and Fate!  Well over 100 readers and colleagues have already made complaints. I have not yet heard from the BBC myself, but my editor at Random House has just received this from them:

I understand that the Controller of Radio 4, Gwyneth Williams, is speaking direct to Robert about the unfortunate omission.  However, I can assure you that he is credited in the Radio Times; he will be credited on-air in the first and last episodes; a revised press release is being issued including his name and the commercial download and the public service podcasts will all credit him. 

I apologise again that this has happened but trust all will appreciate that we have taken appropriate steps to remedy the situation.

This is progress.  Originally, I was informed that I would only be credited on air after the last of the ten episodes…

All the best, and thank you again for your heartening support!

So, dear VL readers — and I know there are a few translators among you, not to mention fans of BBC adaptations — I’m opening the floor.  What do you think about the case of Robert Chandler?  Have you ever witnessed or experienced this kind of oversight?  We’d love to hear from you…

6 comments on “Life, Fate and BBC adaptations: the case of Robert Chandler

  1. Melrose
    September 13, 2011

    Good article, Kirsty. Thanks for bringing this subject to light. Have written to the BBC stating my views that translators are one of the most vital contributors to a drama such as this, and asking them to do the correct thing and give the translator far more recognition than that of paltry first and last episodes. This should also be done in any other translated works being adapted for the BBC.

  2. Katie
    September 13, 2011

    Oh, how often! I translate academic articles and not books, and mostly I am credited…but not always. Moreover, translator’s names are often missing from academic bibliographies (even when the author is a well-known name whose nationality and writing language is also well-known) – you would hope that the academic world could do better.

  3. Hilary
    September 13, 2011

    Timely piece, Kirsty, as Grossman and ‘Life And Fate’ are all over R4 like a plastic mac, as they say where I come from. After your alert, I listened to Andrew Marr’s Start The Week feature on Grossman and this adaptation, and thought how much more Robert Chandler could have contributed to the discussion, on the challenges of making this novel accessible to English-speakers in the first place. Without the translation, no-one would have been having the conversation at all.

    I’m glad there has been a rethink, but it is shameful that a complaint has to be made at all – and the remedy is about the least you could expect – if not somewhat less than that, still.

    Anyhow, I’m grateful now to be sensitised to the credit given (or not) to translators, and shall keep a close eye on future adaptations.

  4. Robert Chandler
    September 16, 2011

    Dear Kirsty, Hilary and all, Thank you all for these comments! My guess is that there were around 150 complaints to the BBC. A few senior people got involved, and there will probably be a meeting soon between some BBC people and members of the broadcasting group and translators’ association of the Society of Authors. There really is a chance of getting some change now. So, please do keep on complaining if you hear unattributed translations! All the best, Robert

  5. Melrose
    September 16, 2011

    I got a reply from the BBC fairly quickly, but it seemed to assume that I had complained about the translator not being credited on the press release, which wasn’t the point I brought up in my complaint. Here’s the main part of my complaint:


    I have just been reading an article on Vulpes Libris literary review blog about how the BBC fails to acknowledge the translator of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate when episodes are broadcast, though has now grudgingly allowed this for the first and last episodes. I simply cannot understand why the translator is not acknowledged at the end of each episode. In drama, especially broadcast on radio, words are very important, and the translator is perhaps one of the most vital contributors to the production. Without words, on radio, there is nothing……….

    Here’s the main part of their reply:


    Thanks for contacting us regarding the upcoming ‘Life and Fate’ on BBC Radio 4. I understand you were unhappy Robert Chandler didn’t receive a mention in our press release for this programme. The press release concerning BBC Radio 4’s dramatisation of ‘Life and Fate’ has been updated to credit the translator of Vasily Grossman’s novel, Robert Chandler, from which the radio dramatisation was adapted. Credit for Mr Chandler was already planned for the broadcasts and other promotional materials.


    As you can see, there’s a bit of a disconnect as I didn’t mention press release at all, so I’m assuming that it is a standard reply that is being sent out, and not much attention is being paid to the specific points in the complaint. However, it does get added to the number of complaints, and I suppose that is the most important bit!

  6. Jackie
    September 17, 2011

    This raises a very important point & I’m glad some action is being taken on it and hope that it leads to a wider crediting of translators in other mediums as well. As Hilary mentioned, the translator is who makes a work accessible to those who don’t speak the original. That is where it all begins.
    And when we think of the skills need for a translator, it’s nothing to be sneezed at. As anyone who has used one of those online robotic translators, just switching the words to another language isn’t enough, it’s the gist and the flow of the words also.
    Thanks to Mr. Chandler & Kirsty for bringing this issue to the fore, it’s long overdue.

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This entry was posted on September 13, 2011 by in Entries by Kirsty, Special Features and tagged , , , , , , .



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