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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A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé (translated from the original French by Alison Anderson)

Biblio-porn is a category of books specifically targeting bibliophiles – the true reading fanatics. It caters to the fetishists among us by focusing on all things literary:  books, bookshops,  readers, etc. Biblio-porn revels in the written word. 

A Novel Bookstore by Laurence Cossé and translated by Alison Anderson is undoubtedly biblio-porn.

An heiress offers a bookshop manager the opportunity to join her in opening the shop of their (and our) dreams.  It will contain only good novels… the very finest novels ever written.  And to ensure that this is so a committee of eight anonymous authors will provide the list of titles which the shop will stock.  Every year the committee members will add to their lists – with the proprietors of The Good Novel determining and filling in any omissions.

We want books that are written for those of us who doubt everything, who cry over the least little thing, who are startled by the slightest noise. We want books that cost their authors a great deal, books where you can feel the years of work, the backache, the writer’s block, the author’s panic at the thought that he might be lost: his discouragement, his courage, his anguish, his stubbornness, the risk of failure that he has taken. We want splendid books, books that immerse us in the splendor of reality and keep us there; books that prove to us that love is at work in the world next to evil, right up against it, at times indistinctly, and that it always will be, just the way that suffering will always ravage hearts. We want good novels.

The shop is located on the rue Dupuytren, Paris and it’s an immediate success.  Like the eerie, disembodied voice tells us:  “Build it and they will come”.  Discriminating readers hail the shop as a temple of literature.  Others, though, attack it as elitist.  Of course the bibliophile immediately understands the critics are among those Philistines who make their living from the proliferation of less than great literature.  A war of taste is waged…. until the stakes are raised when three members of the secret committee are physically assaulted by a shadowy enemy.

Cossé fills page after page with cerebral discussions of novels, literature and publishing.  Along with scenes of people reading and buying books.  A Novel Bookstore is conversational in its tone, but it is a conversation containing multiple participants.  Voices weave in and out, interrupting and interjecting, dissecting events and creating a seamless, rhythmic narrative. The translator has done an excellent job in capturing the author’s spirit. By the book’s end you’ll have a list of must-read authors – as well as an almost spiritual yearning to visit this amazing bookshop and interact with the characters who congregate there.

“By the way,” asked Ivan, “have you come up with your pen name?”

Tailleberne gave a childlike smile.

“The Red,” he said.

“I see,” said Francesca.  “The name of your ancestor Erik.”

Van mentioned Ada, whose characters have coded names, in the spirit of the one chosen by Tailleberne, a sort of schoolboy reference to historical figures or the heroes of novels.  Tailleberne seemed delighted: “On my list, you find every novel by Nabokov.”

“You see!” said Francesca.  “When you agreed to be on the committee, I reread all your novels.  They made me think of a certain tone, a certain author, and I couldn’t remember who.  Of course, Nabokov.  It’s the way you write that has echoes of his style, the sad, cruel irony, the virtuosity, the charm.”

Tailleberne was bright red:  “You have made me very happy saying that.”

Two hours later, the three of them were still talking.

I can’t imagine A Novel Bookstore being set anywhere other than in Paris.  If it is nothing else, this book is very French.  What do I mean?  Take, for example, the two main protagonists: Francesca and Ivan.  Francesca is tall, elegant and tragic. Her eyes are, of course, sad and magnificent.

Her eyes were full of tears – her magnificent blue eyes, which were so fascinating that you could only look away after she had revealed herself to you, and then, when you thought of her, that is what you saw – her extraordinarily brilliant eyes, like the sapphires used for irises on certain statues.

Ivan is middle-aged, charming, handsome in that slightly rumpled and approachable way (think Gerard Depardieu or Jean Dujardin) characteristic of Frenchmen.  These two communicate to each other in earnest, philosophical tangents.  They are soul mates.  They secretly suffer, but even their suffering is attractive.

A Novel Bookstore is brilliant, smart and fun; beautifully written and impossible to put down. Interestingly, the mystery never really takes off.  Even the author seems to lose interest in it three-quarters of the way through.  This is not a thriller – and I’m not sure why it pretends to be.  The true subject of A Novel Bookstore is the love of literature and the physical manifestation of that love:  the bookstore called The Good Novel. The question of who is mounting the attacks is just a ruse – a hook – to draw us in.  It works, but it is not the reason we keep reading.

Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 933 37282 2

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More on Herta…

Here are some links to more information on the 2009 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature –

Anyone out there who has actually read her work?  If so, what’s your opinion?

The Magic of Podcasts (Redux)

The next best thing to reading a book is reading about books. Fact. But let’s face it: there are only so many hours in the day. Thankfully there are the Podcasts. (Seriously, what is sexier than an Ipod?) I subscribe to a few different ones on a variety of topics. Below are a few of my favorite literary podcasts. Needless to say (we are in a recession) they’re all free to download.

The Penguin Podcast – Beware! There are both British & American versions. My personal favorite is the British and it’s not just because of the nifty accent. Its has been a great source for new books and authors that haven’t yet made the leap across the pond. Luckily, even we Yanks can order from AmazonUK. All the books featured are published by Penguin (and eventually its American affiliates). Additional value comes from good quality production, entertaining readings by the authors and rather catchy music mixes featuring quotes from books in the Penguin library. Average time: 15 minutes per episode, with new episodes about 1-2 times a month (though lately they seem to be updating less).

Slate Audio Book club – Young, terminally hip and bordering on unacceptably smug… this podcast conforms to the Slate brand identity. The NYC group of three usually discusses a book that falls squarely into the critically acclaimed bestseller category. (Lately they’ve been reading a lot of recently deceased authors such as Updike and Wallace). Keep in mind that this is a discussion group, not a reading and not a review, so major plot points are revealed. There’s the added frustration of listening to people express opinions you don’t agree with and can’t respond to. On the plus side, it’s always informative, and a great resource for current fiction and non-fiction. Each episode lasts 1 hour.

World Book Club (The BBC) – I love the BBC (that accent again). This podcast features author interviews done in front of a live audience – doing a quick question and answer with the host and then taking audience, call in and emailed questions from readers. The authors featured are always at the top of their game. Toni Morrison, David Guterson, Iain Banks, Armistead Maupin and Michael Ondaatje are some examples. Overall the podcast is very entertaining, informative, with the added bonus of hearing the audiences’ responses, laughter and applause. Each episode lasts approximately 1 hour.

KCRW Bookworm – This is National Public Radio – kickin’ it OLD SCHOOL! Here is your chance to experience the classic author interview, done by an erudite NPR host. Expect obscure questions and inferences into the text that even the author has trouble following. Marvel at the strange emotional intonations and inappropriate pauses for emphasis as the interviewer goes on lengthy tangents that no one understands. And always expect to be faced with the age old question – who is REALLY the expert on this book? – The author or the NPR host/critic? Bookworm is a weekly radio program (more of an institution) out of California, so scheduling is consistent, shows 1 hour in length, and features a steady stream of relevant & established contemporary authors.

Short Stories (for those awful and unfortunate times when you can’t read):

The New Yorker: Fiction – The podcast features short stories from the archives of the New Yorker. The stories are guaranteed to be well written and well read. The stories are selected and read by a contemporary figure (writers, actors) – and always feature an insightful (or at least interesting) interview as to why the story was chosen. Each episode averages about a ½ hour, and they come out monthly. These are great on headset for doing chores, running errands, walking the dog or commuting to work.

PRI: Selected Shorts – Fabulous reading from members of the American Theater at the NY Symphony Space (broadcast by NY Public Radio). Each episode lasts about 1 hour and consists of a variety of short readings. One program I listened to included a short story by Kate Chopin, Mark Twain, a fairy tale and readings from Capote letters. The readers are equally as impressive, featuring the likes of John Lithgow (my personal favorite). Recommend listening while making dinner.