The Critic’s Global Voice… & Thoughts On A New Conversation Between Book Bloggers and Book Critics

https://i2.wp.com/www.pen.org/sites/default/files/PEN.banner.300x300.v2.jpgI was only able to attend one panel at this year’s PEN World Voices Literary Festival and so, based on how much I enjoyed last year’s panel on Reviewing Translations, I chose The Critic’s Global Voice.  The description and the list of panelists (Jean-Euphèle Milcé from Haiti, Ursula Krechel from Germany, Mikhail Shishkin from Russia) both seemed promising. The panel was moderated by an editor at BookForum.

The style, attitude, and role of book criticism differs from country to country. This panel will explore how reviewers and book reviews shape-shift across borders, even as each country’s literary culture forms its own responses to political, technological, and aesthetic changes.

My expectation was that the discussion would touch on topics such as:  book reviews and criticism in a global society; the influence of the internet and digital publishing on how books are reviewed and where; and the cultural differences in literary criticism traditions between countries.  Perhaps this was a little ambitious, but based on that description above I didn’t think so.

What happened instead was a series of pointed questions that appeared designed to prompt the panelists to expound on the importance of book critics to literature as a whole and to legitimize the book review as a literary form in its own right.  No one seemed to have explained this agenda to the panelists and for the most part they refused to play.  Not entirely surprising – the relationship between critics and authors is always a bit dodgy.  It’s the rare artist, or person for that matter, who embraces criticism; particularly negative.  If that was the conversation the moderator wanted to have it might have made sense to include an actual critic or two on the panel.

The impression I was left with was that literary criticism is of nominal importance in Europe.  But I know that’s not the case… so I’m not sure what the audience was supposed to take-away.   There were a few moments when the conversation could have taken a more informative turn.  Particularly a comment made by the Haitian author Jean-Euphèle Milcé (whose book I bought immediately after the panel) regarding how Haitian authors are not critiqued as simply Haitian authors, but have their works held up against the entire French literary tradition.  And when asked about the state of book criticism in Russia, Mikhail Shishkin engaged in an elegant metaphor (which my paraphrasing will not do justice to) – that a literary Cold War was still happening in Russia.  That his book sits between two sets of barricades.  Behind the barricade to the right are the Nationalists, who will not like his book. To the left are the more liberal reviewers, those who see Russia as a part of a larger, European community and who will write positively about his book.  Shishkin told us that he does not need to read his reviews in Russia because he knows without exception behind which barricade each critic stands.  Whereas with non-Russian critics he never knows what they will say in advance.

Both these points could have been expanded into a larger discussion on the difference between how a book is perceived in and outside of an author’s home country.  Different cultural contexts must be applied – and are these contexts necessarily fair, or even useful?  And (to throw in a curveball) is this why so many authors seem to be living as expatriates these days?  in part to escape cultural categorization?  But that didn’t happen.

I also found it frustrating that very little attention (with the exception of an audience question at the end) was given to the changing landscape of book criticism.  Specifically digital publishing and the internet.  Ebooks make it easier for small publishers to launch.  Readers from around the world can communicated in the comments sections of reviews, articles and blogs regardless of where they are physically located.  On Twitter and the various blogs I follow,  I learn about books and authors that may not have even found a U.S. publisher yet.  Book bloggers – like other kinds of bloggers – cross international borders and form global communities all the time.

This frustration is not a new one.  I felt it with last year’s panel on Reviewing Translations.  In my experience the professional book critic establishment tends to lump bloggers with Amazon reviewers, and so whenever there is a conversation on “serious” reviewing they (often quite literally) ignore us.  In turn, bloggers dismiss the establishment as “gate-keepers”, literary elitists or as Luddites unable (or just unwilling) to come to terms with the new age in which we all live.

Neither point of view is particularly productive.

I see comments from younger bloggers on Twitter sometimes about how only their older relatives recommend things they’ve read in the NY Times… which always makes me laugh.  Inevitably we all become that older relative.  I had no interest in current events, politics or world events when I was young.  (I did always read the lit reviews – The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement and the infrequent Village Voice Literary Supplement).  But there does come a time when you realize you not only don’t know everything, you never will.  And you feel the need for a dialogue that encompasses more than an exchange between friends, because you’ve been having those exchanges for so long with those same friends that it’s necessary to either insert some fresh content or stop having them.  There is still a place for the “old guard” in today’s world – if only to acknowledge the fact that we all eventually join that old guard whether we want to or not.

There is still a place for traditional book criticism and reviews.  The literary community would be the lesser if outlets like The NYRB, BookForum and the Times Literary Supplement vanished completely.

I also see comments by bloggers that the conversation about Book Blogger vs. Book Critics is 10-years old and no longer relevant.  True.  The conversation that has happened within the separate camps has become irrelevant in light of  the current state of affairs.  Bloggers have carved out a niche for themselves, separate but very similar to the niche inhabited by book critics.  The print outlets that were once the critic’s domain have declined in numbers and popularity.  But the rise in digital and self publishing, and the histrionic (and sometimes ridiculous) hand-wringing over the decline of book sales and literature in general effects us all.  What has been lost in all this noise (and, frankly, insecurity) is that we are –  book critics and bloggers – on the same team.

I believe it was the same audience member who asked the question I referred to earlier, on digital publishing and the changing literary climate, who also made an important observation regarding the massive volume of literature that is now available and the need to help readers sort through it all.   It would be too easy to look at that question and dismiss it as elitist or, even worse,  a call for a gate-keeper.  I see it differently.  I never try to tell my readers what they shouldn’t read.  I’m not even, necessarily, telling them what they should read.  I seldom care all that much about what other people read, period.  What I am trying to do is introduce readers to books – books they may not hear about otherwise – and then explain why I find these books interesting (or not).  And, by inference, what I think they will find interesting in them (or not).  These are books – often by small publishers and in my case almost always in translation – that are often lost in the literary deluge that is currently upon us.

Don’t book critics have the same goal – to help readers discover specific books and (hopefully) appreciate them?  Perhaps the conversation between bloggers and critics should start there.

Towards the end of the panel Ursula Krechel used the terms “democratization” of reviewing and the “professional reader” – which seemed to have a negative implication.   Because book blogs – or even online book review outlets like The Millions, The Huffington Post, BookSlut – were never specifically mentioned I had to wonder who she was referring to.   Every blogger I know cares about the quality and content of their reviews.  Many spend hours, if not days, obsessing and tweaking their posts.  We love reading about books, but we also love writing about them. Perhaps we judge them by a slightly different criteria than the traditional literary critic, but we do employ standards.  Bloggers build individual followings, something most book critics don’t have.  I follow several bloggers, but very seldom do I (an acknowledged book review addict) look for specific reviewers when I open a paper or click on a review online.  I bet those traditional critics (and the outlets that employ them) would love to change that.

As for what book critics have to teach bloggers – they do have a  couple hundred years tradition on their side.   If the literary criticism world must continue to change – and, I’m sorry, it must – what form do they want to see that change take in the future?  If there is a literary standard they feel bloggers are not meeting – open a dialogue that is not dismissive or condescending.  Why not partner up with or mentor specific bloggers with the same vision (I have heard of this happening, but infrequently).  Or even invite bloggers and book critics to sit on the same panel.  At this point, it’s a zero-sum game we’re all playing here.  We can just as quickly turn that into a positive as a negative.

(Speaking of a global community – I know you’re out there – the Comments are open!)

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature: April 29 – May 5, 2013

The 9th Annual PEN World Voices Festival is almost here.  If you’re in the NYC area then you definitely should try to attend some of the events.  It’s my favorite kind of literary festival: one that highlights authors from foreign countries whose work is available to us only through the act of translation.

The PEN Literary Safari is not to be missed.  Author readings are hosted in the studios of the legendary artist community known as the Westbeth Artist Housing.  Last year I heard Elias Khoury read from his novel As Though She Were Sleeping (crowded into a small room with dozens of other attendees – a classic New York experience), and caught the tail end of Wojciech Jagielski answering questions about his book The Night Wanderers: Uganda’s Children and the Lord’s Resistance Army.  This year’s authors include Michal Ajvaz, Nadeem Aslam, Dror Burstein, Gillian Clarke, Mia Couto, Natalio Hernández, Nick Holdstock, Randa Jarrar, Jaime Manrique, Margie Orford, Jordi Puntí, Noémi Szécsi, Kho Tararith and Padma Venkatraman – with more names to come.  The PEN Literary Safari takes place on Friday, May 3rd at 6:30PM.

Braver is thee theme of the 2013 Festival.  “Events throughout the week will focus on individual bravery in settings as diverse as Guantanamo, Burma, and Palestine. Expert panels will examine writers’ impact on political transformations in recent global hot spots and in a variety of other contexts.”  They had me at Guantanamo.

AiWeiWei exhibitBut the festival’s centerpiece seems to be what they’re calling the “Invisible Symposium”.

Another highlight of the festival will be a reimagining of the “Invisible Symposium” initiated by the European School, a group of dissident Hungarian artists in 1947. Seeking solidarity with the rest of Europe, the European School mailed a set of questions on art and politics to fellow artists, writers, and philosophers; their answers were then collected and published as an imagined dialogue. For PEN’s inaugural Invisible Symposium, sixteen intellectuals from around the world—including Margaret Atwood, Garry Kasparov, Naomi Klein, Julia Kristeva, Ai Weiwei, Shirin Ebadi, and Cornel West—have been invited to answer a set of questions on modern democracy. Their responses will be molded into a cohesive script which actors will perform in a staged reading at the Festival, as if the respondents were gathered in the same room to argue their opinions. The result will be a dramatic virtual dialogue among some of the most extraordinary minds of our time.

Ai Weiwei Tea Houses

I just got back from Washington, D.C. – where I saw the Ai Weiwei exhibit “According to What?” at the Hirshhorn Museum & Sculpture Garden.  That, and the documentary “Never Sorry”, have converted me.  Count me a fan.  So to say that I’m excited to see him that he’s taking part in the symposium, even in absentia, is the understatement of the year. (Quick side note: I’ll be posting some more photos of the exhibit over the weekend).

A partial schedule of events  are posted at the  PEN America website.  I recommend checking back regularly.  If last year was a gauge, they’ll be consistently updating and adding events in the weeks approaching the actual festival.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

The Brooklyn Book Festival Cometh

BrooklynBookFestivalThe Brooklyn Book Festival is happening Sunday, September 23rd.  This year’s schedule is very exciting!  There are several panels – more than I can remember seeing in past years’ schedules – dealing specifically with International authors & translated lit.  England (see The London Review of Books), Central & North Africa, India, Jamaica, and Trinidad & Tobago are all represented.  Almost all of them conveniently located in the Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room.  Below is a quick list (copied & pasted right from the schedule) of the panels which caught my eye.

  • 10:00 A.M. The London Review of Books presents The Novel and the City, a conversation about literature and the urban imagination with Mexican author Alvaro Enrigue, and cultural writer Christine Smallwood. Moderated by Adam Shatz, London Review of Books. – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 10:00 A.M. Home Is Not A Place. Four authors read and discuss their books whose protagonists are challenged to create and negotiate their identity in a new homeland–a journey fraught with confusion, rebellion and uncertain outcomes. Graphic novelist Leela Corman (Unterzakhn), and authors Patricia Engel (Vida), Luis Alberto Urrea (Into the Beautiful North)and Jose Manuel Prieto (Nocturnal Butterflies of the Russian Empire).Moderated by Tiphanie Yanique (How to Escape from a Leper Colony) – Saint Francis Screening Room (180 Remsen Street)
  • 12:00 P.M. Through the Eyes of a Child. Join Somali-English author Nadifa Mohamed (Black Mamba Boy), Maaza Mengiste (Beneath the Lion’s Gaze) and Congo’s Emmanuel Dongala (Johnny Mad Dog and Little Boys Come from the Stars) for a conversation on contemporary African novels which explore themes of identity, memory and violence through child narrators. Moderated by Bhakti Shringarpure, Warscapes – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 1:00 P.M. From the Ruins of Empire. Leading Indian writers Pankaj Mishra (From the Ruins of Empire: the Intellectuals Who Remade Asia) and Siddhartha Deb (The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India) read from their books and discuss the modern world and the East, and the movements and personalities that helped shape both – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 1:00 P.M. Humanity in the Age of the Cyborg and Higgs Boson. The ancient question “What is the Self?” gets a new twist with the rise of nanotechnology, biotechnology and “smart” robots that increasingly assume functions previously handled by human muscle and mind. How do we define consciousness and existence in the age of cyborg bodies and artificial intelligence? Siri Hustvedt (Living, Thinking, Looking), Jim Holt (Why Does the World Exist) and Andrew Blum (Tubes) discuss mutating selfhood and what still makes us human. Moderated by Greg Milner – Brooklyn Historical Society Library (128 Pierrepont Street)
  • 2:00 P.M. Calabash Presents. Jamaica’s legendary Calabash International Literary Festival celebrates 50 years of Jamaican independence with readings by premier Jamaican-born novelists and poets Chris John Farley (Kingston Noir), Jacqueline Bishop (Snapshots from Istanbul),and Ishion Hutchinson (Far District).Moderated by Calabash co-founder Kwame Dawes – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 3:00 P.M. BOCAS Presents. Trinidad’s groundbreaking annual NGC Bocas Literary Festival comes to Brooklyn to celebrate 50 years of Trinidad & Tobago independence with readings by Earl Lovelace (Is Just a Movie), Victoria Brown (Minding Ben) and Anton Nimblett (Sections of an Orange). Moderated by Nicholas Laughlin, BOCAS organizer and editor of the Caribbean Review of Books – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 3:00 P.M. Power to the People: Grassroots Revolution in the Post Hope Era  What’s the connection between social change and electoral politics? Does the hope we can truly believe in come from the ground up? And what can we learn from the peoples’ revolutions from around the globe? Tariq Ali (The Obama Syndrome), Todd Gitlin (Occupy Nation), and Marina Sitrin (Everyday Revolutions) will discuss the necessity and effectiveness of individual action in the political sphere. Moderated by Laura Flanders (The Nation) – Brooklyn Historical Society Library (128 Pierrepont Street)
  • 4:00 P.M. Reality Denied. Science Fiction authors Carla Speed McNeil (Finder: Voice), Lev Grossman (The Magician King), Hillary Jordan (When She Woke) and Terry Bisson (Fire on the Mountain) read and discuss their books, which are part-medieval, part-magical, part-historical, part-apocalyptic and all reality bending! Moderated by literary agent Seth Fishman – Saint Francis Screening Room (180 Remsen Street)
  • 5:00 P.M. The PEN Translation Committee Presents North African Writing in the Wake of the Arab Spring. Noted translators, editors and poets Pierre Joris (Exile Is My Trade: a Habib Tengour Reader), Deborah Kapchan (Gender on the Market: Moroccan Women and the Revoicing of Tradition) and Peter Thompson (A Passenger from the West by Nabile Farès) explore the effects of the Arab uprisings in North Africa on poetry and narratives and discuss their recent works in translation. Moderated by Nathalie Handal (Language of a New Century: Poetry from the Middle East, Asia & Beyond) – Brooklyn Borough Hall Community Room (209 Joralemon Street)
  • 5:00 P.M. The Center for Fiction Presents Beyond Earth. From alternate histories to entire universes these writers create intricate worlds for their readers to explore. Naomi Novik (Temeraire series), N.K. Jemisin (the Inheritance trilogy), Rick Bowes (From the Files of the Time Rangers) and Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making) will read brief selections from their work and discuss the art of world-building in fantasy writing and beyond. Moderated by Noreen Tomassi (The Center for Fiction) – Brooklyn Historical Society Library (128 Pierrepont Street)

The events highlighted in that pretty shade of lavender?  You probably noticed they’re all science fiction related.  They (and the promise of food trucks) were just the leverage I needed to get my husband to agree to spending the day in the city.  Book festivals aren’t really his thing, but he’s a bit of a foodie and a definite sci-fi geek, so what you’re witnessing is a compromise in action.

If you’re in NYC that weekend it’s (in theory) only a quick subway ride from Manhattan – and worth every delayed train, local stop and transfer.  So, do any of these panels look good to you?  Or did you see something on the official schedule that I missed?  Leave a comment below.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

2012 BEA Yearbook Awards

The 2012 Book Expo of America (BEA) took place last week at the Javitz Center in NYC.  This was my third year attending.   I plan to intersperse BEA stories in posts about specific books in the months to come, but for now here are some highlights you might be interested in checking out on your own:

  • Best Blogger Best-ie – No surprises here.  Lori @TNBBC was my designated driver for BEA 2012, showing up at promptly 5:30 AM every morning with an extra DD Mocha Latte in the cup holder.  She was wonderful.  No.  Really.  SHE WAS WONDERFUL!  She kept us focused, made me attend events I totally would have missed out on otherwise, and was my touchstone throughout the entire conference.  At one point another blogger said to me – Every time I see you you’re together.  Which made me feel incredibly lucky.  Because even though we did in fact split up quite a bit – I’m fortunate to have a friend who is never boring, with whom I always have tons to discuss, and doesn’t take offense when I get cranky and give a low growl of warning.   Best of all:  she did an incredible re-cap of a bunch of stuff we did together which means I don’t have to!

Of course, she had some tough competition this year.  We spent a goodly amount of time with The Picky Girl, Amy Reads, Alex who reviews at Romance Books Forum and Sally from The Insatiable BookSluts.   These ladies (and their knowledge of Brooklyn ice cream parlors) took my BEA to the next level. *waves*

  • Favorite Small Presses – There’s no one winner in this category!  Being new to the translation/international lit market, I still get a thrill from quizzing publishers on their new releases.  Sadly a lot of the Indie publishers – who in my opinion lead the industry in making international authors and translations available to the rest of us – were not in attendance this year.  Europa, New Directions, Two Dollar Radio and PEN (obviously not a publisher, but too important to the category not to mention) didn’t have booths. Fortunately, the University presses were still there in full force, as were perennial favorites Soho, Soft Skull, Tin House, Red Hen and Other Presses.  Coach House, a Canadian Publisher I first encountered a few years ago at the Brooklyn Book Festival made their BEA debut this year as well.
  • Prettiest Book – University of Minnesota is distributing these stunning Univocal paperback letterpress editions of various philosophers.  The books displayed featured translations into English, amongst them philosophers who I believe are fairly contemporary (but don’t quote me on that).  Philosophy, I’m embarrassed to say, is a category I neglect.  But these beautiful books make me not care whether or not I understand what’s inside them.  And you can see the craftmanship that is put into each one in the video below.

Actually, University of Minnesota was a winner overall for me.  They’re also publishing an intriguing Japanese author – Kawamati Chiaki – who I’ll have more to say about in the weeks to come.

  • Most Likely To Win A Literary Award (Actually, I think it already has…) – Tin House has a French translation coming out in October – Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi – which I’ll be moving to the front of my TBR queue.  At 119 pages I should have no problem fitting it in.  Here’s the publisher’s haunting description:

A single mother takes her two sons on a trip to the seaside.  They stay in a hotel, drink hot chocolate, and go to the carnival.  She wants to protect them from an uncaring and uncomprehending world.  She knows that it will be the last trip for her boys.

With language as captivating as the story that unfolds, Véronique Olmi creates an intimate portrait of madness and despair…

  • Person I’d Most Like to Have Coffee With – Che Guevara’s widow Aleida March has written a memoir with her daughter entitled Remembering Che:  My Life with Che Guevara.  It has taken over 10 years to convince her to tell her version of events.  The book marks the first time she is speaking publicly about her life with Che.  Aleida March is a fascinating person in her own right – she and her husband met as fellow guerrillas in the Cuban revolution.  Better yet, the book came out in April so there’s no need to wait for my review.
  • Book I Camped Out For – That would be Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Prisoner of Heaven.  By fangirl standards, it was in no way as hectic as I thought it would be. I was there 1-1/2 hours ahead of time, but the line didn’t start forming until a 1/2 hour before.  I love the cover… and while I know that each of these books can be read as a stand alone, I think I’ll need to go back and read the other two again to refresh my memory.  Poor me.
  • Most Likely to Be Overlooked –  Russia was the featured nation – which in typical BEA fashion wasn’t really ‘featured’.  There were panels to attend, but the actual booth was allllllll the way off to the side of the main floor, next to the e-readers.  (I passed by on my way to the McSweeney’s and Red Hen booths). Which is a shame, as Overlook Press put together a wonderful Anthology entitled READ RUSSIA! specifically, I think, for BEA (If anyone knows if there are  plans to sell it in stores please leave a comment).  There were stacks for the taking all around the Russia booths, but how many people knew about them?

The final verdict: BEA 2012 was a blast!  It’s always nice to be in the midst of bookish folk.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

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.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine