Reviewing Translations (Afterthoughts)

It was roughly this time last year when I made the decision to focus on translated and international literature here at BookSexy Review.  The Reviewing Translations panel last Thursday at the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature couldn’t have been better timed.  The panelists were Ruth Franklin, Julya Rabinowich, and Lorin Stein.  The co-moderators were Eric Banks and Susan Bernofsky (Arne Bellstorf was listed in the description, but I don’t recall seeing him).  All are important figures in the world of translation and literary criticism.  Needless to say I was very interested in what they had to say. (You can view the video and hear for yourself).

A benefit to attending this type of panel is that it forces you to carefully examine and define your position on the matters being discussed. Do you agree or disagree with the statements being made by the speakers?  Early on the discussion centered around defining the types of translations and, subsequently, the three types of reviews being written.  As defined by Lorin Stein:  The first translation is one that…

“…should, ideally, give the book a life in the target language; there’s the second one, that should bring it back to some sort of more correct… more faithful… sort of a ‘revisionist’ translation; and then, eventually, over the life of a very successful book, there might be a scholarly translation…”

The conversation dealt almost exclusively with fiction, and Lorin Stein went on to talk about how in the early rounds of reviews of a new translation – when the author is being first established among English readers – he prefers that the subject of translation not be raised.  (While I don’t want to make too many assumptions, it appeared to me that he adhered to the school of thought that American readers don’t buy translations).

Next, Ruth Franklin put forth her opinion that reviewers should be fluent in the language the novel was originally written in.  While it was brought up that this rule might present difficulties for some languages (including a round of quiet laughter after the line “ably translated from the Icelandic”), no one contradicted her. Ruth Franklin went so far as to state that she didn’t think poetry could be translated, as it is a form of writing where the language is “the main event”.  As you can imagine, there was some debate afterwards on whether a translated novel can judged solely on its own merit – the style and flow, plotting, etc. – without the reviewer referencing back to the original text.  And some audience members, mostly students studying to become translators themselves, discussed the importance of a cultural awareness versus having a foundation in the language.  Though we might laugh at the formulaic “ably translated from the Icelandic” what it really represents is a form of code that is meant to reassure readers that they can trust this translator and are in good hands.

One topic that the panel revisited throughout the evening was how much credit (if any) should be given to the translator in the review.  Or whether the translator’s name belongs on the cover of the book.  In fact, when Lorin Stein stated that he felt the translator’s name should be left off the cover entirely I feared for his safety when he left the building.  (At a conservative estimate, 75% of the audience members were, or hoped to be, translators).  But, fortunately, this was on the whole a pretty sedate group.  Though I wonder if any angry, though erudite of course, emails appeared in the inbox-es of the panelists afterwards.

Now, admittedly, some might say that much of what I write from this point on is so much sour grapes.  And I can’t in all honesty guarantee that it isn’t.  Because I am, unfortunately, not bilingual.  I speak and read only English.  Yet, I would argue that many readers are in the same boat.  Narrowing the pool of reviewers to only those who speak an author’s native tongue creates a needless and artificial constraint.  A harmful one even.  (It’s also kinda’ ridiculous).  No doubt the second “revisionist” and third “scholarly” forms of translation are closed to me.  I can’t make a line by line comparison between texts or elucidate for a reader the choices the translator made.  But helping to establish the author and the book with a general, English speaking/reading audience – this I can do without feeling the fraud. I can comment on the flow and rhythm of the text; discuss the author’s background and the historical context of the novel; examine the pacing and how the plot is developed.  I can speculate on the author’s influences; point out how this book and this author are similar to his countrymen and contemporaries.  I can write about how he or she differs both stylistically and culturally from an English speaking/Western writer.  All these things are, I believe, more relevant to the general reader than how much a translator’s interpretation of a particular passage diverges from the original text.

As for credit being given to the translator, a reviewer needs to make a decision as to how she will address this early on.  Both sides of the debate are defensable.  Personally, I feel it is a translator’s job to be transparent – to be the glass pane through which a reader first peers into a novel.  They perform the initial introductions and then step aside so that the two, reader and novelist, can become better acquainted.  This doesn’t mean that translators should remain forever in the shadow – that to give them credit is to ruin the illusions and, subsequently, the experience of the individual reader.  The implication underestimates and, what is far worse, condescends to English readers.  Who picks up Bolaño, for example, and is unaware that he wrote in Spanish?  And if they somehow go in ignorant why would they, on learning that his native language isn’t English, feel cheated???  In my reviews I always make a point of mentioning the translator by name.  This is to, hopefully, inform my readers.  Allow them to add these names to their mental spreadsheets and ultimately build a database of the translators they can depend on.  But my primary purpose is always to introduce followers of this blog to new author and their work.

Your turn.  Because if any post on BookSexy has the potential to create a conversation, then this one is it.  Share your thoughts and express your opinions below.  What are your feelings on translations?  Do you read (or review) them?  Do you avoid works in translation because you feel they’re an adulterated version of the original?  Do the translators deserve more time in the spotlight?  Enquiring minds want to know.

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16 thoughts on “Reviewing Translations (Afterthoughts)

  1. I read English and Bengali, but my favorite writers write in languages I cannot read, such as Spanish (Marquez and Llosa among others), French (Sartre, Hugo, even Herge of Tintin fame), and German(Gunter Gras, Erich Maria Remarque).
    Some of the translations, such as Edith Grossman’s translations of Marquez,, are works of art themselves… others, I have felt, faltered, but you cannot blame them too much. If a translator translates the words rather than the spirit, he gets criticized for being too literal, but if he lets himself linger on the spirit too much, he is accused of changing the text. He can’t win 🙂

    I tried to review Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat, but I often found myself wondering if I was reviewing the writer or the translator. But I don’t think I agree that a reviewer should be fluent in the original language in order to be able to review a translation. the reviewers represent the common reader, it makes sense for them to write about the impression they formed equipped only with the translation and no other knowledge. This is how 90% of the people who read their review are going to approach they book, so it is senseless for them to have an unfair advantage,

    Thank you for all the food for thought 🙂


    1. Thank you Amritorupa! I’ve always viewed a translated book as a collaboration between the author and translator – so I can sympathize with your wondering exactly who you were reviewing. Unfortunately, I think the translator too often gets the blame when a reviewer has problems with a book, and the author gets all the credit for all the good. (One of the panelists actually said much the same thing on Thursday).


  2. Wow, what an interesting post, it never occurred to me that perhaps I ought not review books in translation! I read indonesian reasonably well, but it’s hard work, and I have tourist French, Italian and Spanish, so by Ruth Franklin’s rule I would be precluded from reviewing any of the Man Asian and Independent Foreign Fiction Prize books that I have brought to my blog’s readers’ attention over the past year. And away would go all the French classics, Balzac and Zola, the Russians, Calvino’s PoMo and nearly all the Nobel Prize winners I’ve reviewed too…
    I can see where she’s coming from, in the sense that only the bilingual can really tell whether it’s a fair translation or not, but I think this decision is one that ought to be made at the editorial level by specialised readers. Once the book hits the marketplace, it’s open to consumption by anyone and everyone, and IMO the more the merrier.
    Perhaps she means to differentiate between the amateur reviewer (like me) and the professional reviewer who has a a greater responsibility to ‘review well’, that is to know about cultural awareness and the literary traditions of that language. But even so, to set this test, is to set the bar so high that many great books in translation would never get the attention they deserve, and the wonderful conversations that we see at LitBlogs would never take place. I think we would all be the poorer if this ‘pure’ standard of reviewing were adopted. In fact, whether that’s what Franklin intends or not, it would have the effect of disadvantaging foreign writers in the marketplace even more than they already are.


    1. Lisa –

      Oh yes, she was definitely speaking to the professional reviewer (re-eading my post I see I didn’t make that clear!). The critics/ reviewers on this panel appeared to all be members of the National Book Critics Circle. In fact, amateur critics and bloggers were not mentioned – which I found somewhat odd. Obviously I didn’t expect much time to be devoted to either, but so much reviewing is now being done by both amateurs and bloggers that you would think even a passing reference would have been made?

      But even for professional critics, I agree that it seems like a high bar to set. Aren’t there other aspects of a book, in addition to the technical translation, that can and deserve to be addressed? And Lisa, your comment on the Classics and Nobel Prize winners really struck me! Not only would this rule keep certain translations from getting the attention they deserve, but it could have the detrimental effect of limiting the dialogue to a few “tastemakers” who would be established as gatekeepers to a given language.

      Thanks, as always, for the thought provoking comment!


  3. It’s interesting to think what would happen if professional reviewers only reviewed in the languages that they read. All of those books that would never see reviews, never receive their due credit? It’s crazy, isn’t it?


    1. Definitely – and who would hear about them to read them? It’s not like the majority of translations have huge marketing budgets behind them.


  4. Even though I speak and read Japanese, I’m very lazy, and read Japanese books in English. I think I’m faaaar more critical, then, of translations from Japanese into English, and spend a lot of time wondering what the original looked like for the translator to get there. I feel like I’m more qualified to talk about the translation in these cases.

    Because I don’t speak Korean or Vietnamese or Urdu, I couldn’t tell you if a translation out of these languages was any good, and I’m hesitant to pass judgement on them. I do, of course – I mean, who doesn’t love judging? – but it’s not like I could do any better.


    1. Whoops. I meant to mention this above, too.

      If you get a chance, you should listen to this ( fascinating podcast which contains a conversation between the two Murakami translators. Towards the end, they discuss what they have to do when there’s a terrible book (*cough* 1Q84 *cough*) they have to work on. Do they leave it? Do they edit it – like they did Wind-up Bird?


      1. Matt – I’ve actually heard that podcast and loved it! Not only was it interesting – the two translators speaking were very entertaining. (The pun in the title is pretty lame).

        I’ve a question for you? I’ve found in the past that when a book that was originally conceived and published in multiple volumes is condensed into a single volume it loses something. I can think of two novels (both written in English) off the top of my head where this was done and the flow of the story was hurt as a result. Do you think you might have liked IQ84 might have been better in the original format? (I haven’t read my copy yet… it’s just enormous! I’m thinking it will require a pool and at least a week’s vacation).


  5. Thanks for the great write-up. You and I exchanged some thoughts after the events about this question, and I also compared notes with translator colleagues in the audience. You’re right that the provocateur Lorin Stein (speaking as a bookseller/editor) made us groan with some outdated ideas about how books in translation should pretend not to be (i.e. keep the translator’s name hidden, never on the cover!) in order to sell. LS also said he doesn’t mind not being mentioned in a review of a book he’s translated. Yet at another moment he referred to “established translators.” How do you get to be an established translator if your work isn’t praised in reviews? How do you build a reputation?

    Fact is, it can be painful to read an enthusiastic review of a book you’ve translated and find your name omitted, especially when the review makes reference to the author’s unique style or quotes long passages that to the reviewer were especially noteworthy.

    As a member of the PEN Translation Committee, I’ve been working on a project with others to come up with FAQs intended for reviewers of books in translation. It’s meant for reviewers who’d like to talk about the translation itself, not out of a sense of duty, but because it might be a really interesting addition to their review. It’s for those reviewers who don’t want to resort to dull sentences like “ably translated from the Icelandic,” or other boilerplate language. We think reviewers (print, online or bloggers) can write vibrant and excellent reviews that articulate their sense of the book and their response to the translation — w/o knowing the language of the original. Do you think reviewers would be interested in seeing these FAQs about reviewing translations?

    And I agree, blogs and online book reviews are becoming more and more essential within the book culture. About 90% of the reviews for My Two Worlds were online. It’s really a boon for smaller presses that you guys are writing and posting reviews for books that would never get into mainstream print reviews.


    1. Margaret –
      Thanks so much for adding your thoughts & expertise to the discussion. 🙂 I, for one, would love a FAQs handout – and I think others would feel the same. I’m all for whatever makes me a better reviewer, and tips for what to look out for when reviewing translations can only help towards the goal. I also think that the suggestion LS (by the way, I get the impression he’d enjoy being called a provocateur!) made re: including translator’s notes, either with the galley or as a part of the finished book, is an excellent one. I don’t understand why it’s not common practice.


      1. Yes, a good point… We’ve also talked about the translator contributing notes or an intro/afterword, or some stand-alone text to accompany the translation when it’s sent out to reviewers. We’re often the best person to introduce the author and to tell the back story about the book. This has to be built into the project from the beginning — publishers may or may not go for it and it may be even harder to get them to pay translators anything additional. But it might pay off in increased recognition and visibility for the translator.

        Our FAQs are a work in progress, but they’ll eventually be posted to the PEN website, on the Translation Committee page. The FAQs is a new format — in the past they’ve been called reviewers’ guidelines, but that seems too prescriptive to me. I’ll let you know when they’re up. Your feedback will be much appreciated! — or if you have any questions to contribute now, please let me know.

        Thanks again for your report and for asking your readership to post on this topic! It’s been very illuminating to read everyone’s take on this subject.


  6. Wow. Brilliant, thoughtful post.

    Speaking as a bilingual who has worked in translation (alas, not literary…), I can sort of see where Ruth Franklin is coming from. Whatever I can read in its original language, I do. For now, this is limited to English and Hebrew (and very clumsy Yiddish); hopefully this will one day extend to German as well. But I’ve looked at translations from both languages and sometimes when I review, I refer to the translations. I don’t read the whole book, but I skim to get a feel for the translation.

    And speaking as a bilingual and as a translator, sometimes translations are bad (for example, as brilliant a book as it is, David Grossman’s Someone to Run With is rather poorly translated into English), but sometimes they’re fine. It’s nothing scientific, but when I review books in translation, I try to refer to the translation. Some translations feel wrong, some feel awkward, some feel fine (even if they’re technically less accurate)… and I can’t explain it.

    Basically, though I do think that bilinguals who have read both editions have a clear head-up on those who have only read the translation, I don’t think the reviewer has to be bilingual at all. There are other ways to judge a translation without having read the two editions.

    I’ve placed a higher emphasis on reading translations in recent years because translated literature tends to be truly global literature, and what better way to broaden my horizons? As a matter of principle, I’m also of the belief that there’s an unhealthy Anglo dominance in world literature. The ratio of terrible American books translated each year into various languages as compared to the opposite is… not pretty. And as a reader of many Israeli books that will never get translated into English, I’m sometimes saddened by the excellent books that international readers will never get to enjoy.


    1. Biblibio, I’m curious. In cases where you were able to make a comparison between a translation & the original, and you felt the translation was poor, would someone who can only access the book through translation notice something was off? I guess what I think mean is, if you read the translation & judge it on only its own merits, is it a good book?
      I ask because that is one concern I have when reviewing a book that I don’t feel is successful. Is it a poor translation or am I not connecting with how the author writes? Usually I try to avoid assigning blame, focusing instead on what didn’t work & why. But I can’t help wondering …


      1. It depends! In the case of Someone to Run With, many other readers felt nothing was amiss. Someone who knew that the Hebrew writing was a lot smoother, a lot less abrupt could pick up on it easily, but someone coming to the translation might just assume that the abruptness was simply the style (which is one of the reasons I really dislike that specific translation…). Meanwhile, in cases where the translation is very true to the original, I’ve occasionally seen unwarranted criticism that the translation is uncomfortable to read. And then sometimes it’s both – if the book was awkward originally, the translation may very well have that uncomfortable, corrective feel. Translations today are getting better and better, but occasionally a bad translation does slip through. When that happens, I think your method of avoiding blame is wisest.

        Ultimately, it really depends on the reader. It could be that one day we’ll discover that the translations we thought so smooth will turn out to be clunky! But I don’t think that ought to negate our opinions as a reviewers.


  7. I recently read a book on book reviewing and it talked about the need to know the original language to be able to fully review a translation as well – or at least to comment on it at all. I do agree, but I think that is a whole other level from what we do. Like you, when I review translated works I mention the translator, and my experience with the text as it stands in English. I can’t do more than that, and I think that for the general reader, that is enough to spread the word and get more people reading the work.


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