National Book Critics Circle: The Craft of Criticism

Over the last few months I’ve been working on a series of Q&A’s for The National Book Critics Circle website called The Craft of Criticism. Fran Bigman and I ask book critics and review editors for their thoughts on contemporary criticism. What I really enjoyed about these interviews was that – despite being limited to NBCC members – we were able to choose subjects who come to book reviewing and criticism from a variety of styles and backgrounds. So I got to speak with Donna Seaman, who is the Adult Books Editor for Booklist, a publication that specializes in short, succinct reviews (usually under 250 words). And Carlos Lozada, the Nonfiction Book Critic for The Washington Post — a job I do not envy him at this particular juncture of time. I also spoke with Michelle Dean, who started out reviewing online EVERYWHERE and recently wrote the book Sharp: The Women Who Made An Art of Having An Opinion. And Yahdon Israel, — a power player in the NYC literary scene, exploring the intersection between fashion and literature (which is an incredibly reductive description, so if you aren’t already familiar with Yahdon you really should read the interview and then check out everything he’s doing online and on social media. #literaryswag). And, one of my favorites, Ilana Masad, who approaches the books she reviews as parts of a bigger and more complicated cultural conversation.

We’re on hiatus for a little bit, but for those who want to catch up I’ve listed the interviews below, with links to each.

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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