Saturday, 16 April 2011

Challenge to literary translation no. 4,729: reviewing

[Update: the post below was written on 28 March. On 14 April, I attended a seminar called ‘Lost in Journalism: The Reviewing of Literature in Translation’ in the Literary Translation Centre at London Book Fair.

The first speaker was Financial Times reviewer, translator Ángel Gurría-Quintana, and the first thing he did was to pick up a copy of Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman and read many of the passages quoted below to groans from the audience. Gratifying, yes, but what's more, in the course of the hour-long panel discussion, we actually succeeded in outlining an approach to reviewing literature in translation that empowered reviewers who could not read the text in its original language to review the work they had been assigned as a piece of literature in itself. Daniel Hahn’s piece, dated today but quoted at the event, handles the key aspects of this discussion with grace and backbone, and is a useful starting point for any reviewers with practical questions about how to go about reviewing translation.]


Like everyone else on the reading planet, my nightstand, office shelves and living room groan with unread books I must get around to... just after I finish the five I’ve got on the hop at the moment. Every couple of months, I’ll have a review to do, which means putting the pile on hold for a couple of days and getting on with the assignment at hand. This past week, the Venn diagram lined up nicely with Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters (Yale, 2010). Predictably enough, many of the books in the pile are translation-related; sadly, please note, few of my review books ever are.

So, I was particularly happy to review this (now in paperback – the pile copy was the hardback, eek). I didn’t hesitate to give it a good review; it’s an excellent book by a world-class translator, and it’s part of a well-conceived and -edited series. More to the point for this reviewer/translator, it’s a clear, concise introduction to some of the biggest and longest-standing issues for translators.

Obviously enough, none of what’s outlined in Why Translation Matters will be news to translators. It should, however, be mandatory reading for anyone who commissions or reads literature in translation. Grossman spells out clear, reasoned arguments in support of the publication of more literature in translation and getting more recognition for translators and their creative work. She also works wonders explaining the excitement and frustration of her art in practice with examples from Spanish poetry.

I had heard through the translation grapevine, however, that there were bones to be picked with Grossman’s volume on the issue of reviewing itself. I don’t pay a lot of heed to the translation grapevine, because like most industry gossip mills, it fuels a lot of ill-will and time-wasting.

This was a mistake, but at least I had a feeling for what was coming.

There’s another group, besides the publishers who won’t publish translation and the readers who won’t read it, who get it in the neck from Grossman: reviewers. Her objection is one I share.

It is wrong to omit a credit for the translator in a review of a translated book, and many reputable papers and magazines do just that. Quite simply, it misleads the public. To cite the translator and fail to describe the quality of the writing in English is, well, bizarre when you think about it.

This is where Grossman starts to lose me, and it is here that I must declare an interest. I review literature in translation, and I have fallen afoul both as reviewer and reviewee of the practices of papers regarding crediting the translator. My very first review in 2003 was of an English-language translation of Italo Svevo’s The Hoax. To my eternal shame, I didn’t credit the translator, the wildly impressive and well-established J. G. Nichols. (I came out recently to this effect to Susan Bernofsky in a conversation on this issue on Twitter.) I can’t remember why I didn’t, but you can be sure that one of my favourite university professors picked up on it. Scarleh, as they say in my neighbourhood.

Needless to say, I’ve changed my ways, and always credit the translator in my reviews. Indeed, I try to include a mention of the quality of the English-language prose. Frankly, it’s hard to do well.

'Reviewers seem to care about translation even less than publishers do. ... In overwhelming numbers they tend not to speak substantively about translation or its practitioners, even when the book they are reviewing is a translated work. ... A very well-known figure in the literary world who regularly reviewed for an acclaimed periodical once defended the omission of any mention of the translation in his piece on a translated novel by stating that since he did not know the language of the original, there was nothing he can say about the translated version. By implication, he was actually saying that the purpose of any such discussion in a review is to perform an accuracy check, which is hardly the point, since any competent translator would already have made countless checks for accuracy before the book ever reached the publisher’s hands.' [My italics.] (29–30)

Having reviewed works translated from languages I don’t speak, I have to say that I sympathise with this VIP reviewer. I don’t agree that his implication is necessarily that he’d like his review to include a word-by-word evaluation of the translator’s abilities. I suspect that if he were able, he’d like to read both books and compare them in a holistic way, as reviews tend to be rather broad on detail and more in-depth in terms of critical analysis. Without being able to read the original and the translation, the best I usually manage is to comment on how the English-language text ‘reads’ – a contentious term in and of itself. On rare occasion, I’ve managed to find an English-language review or treatment of the original foreign-language text which allows me as, say, someone who can’t read Swedish, to glean some kind of notion of what the author’s own style is like, and then compare it to that of the translator. That doesn’t cut it for Grossman:

‘... some [publications] apparently require their writers to indicate somewhere in the review that the book under consideration has been translated from another language, and with some few outstanding exceptions, this burdensome necessity is taken care of with a single and dismissive and uninformative adverb paired with the verb “translated”. This is the origin of that perennial favourite “ably,” but I wonder how reviewers know even that much. It usually is clear from the review that ... most of them do not read the original language...’ (30)

Guilty as charged, and agreed about the ‘ably’. So what’s the alternative?

‘...the execution of the book in another language is the task of the translator, and that work should be judged and evaluated on its own terms. ... a significant majority [of reviewers] seem incapable of shedding light on the value of the translation or on how it reflects or illuminates the original.’ (31–32)

The majority of reviewers, those who don’t have the two relevant languages, are indeed entirely incapable of making any comment whatever on how the translation ‘reflects or illuminates the original’. So then we should limit reviews of translation to multilingual reviewers?

‘Even if it is unrealistic to wish that every reviewer of a translated work were at least bilingual, it is not unreasonable to require a substantive and intelligent acknowledgment of the reality of the translation. ...I regret very sincerely that so few of them have devised an intelligent way to review both the original and its translation within the space limitations imposed by the publication.’ (32)

I have trouble here with the idea that a reviewer who lacks the languages required should ‘review both the original and its translation’. If some have succeeded, what have they done right? I imagine this involves some combination of reviewing the content of the original and the style of the translation, but I’m unhappy with the idea of separating the two.

I’ve zeroed in on this because it’s a skill I need to perfect myself, and one I want reviewers of my translations to put to put into action, too. My most recent translation was reviewed in the Observer by Rachel Cook and in the Guardian by Justine Picardie. (More typically, my previous translation wasn’t reviewed at all.) In the Observer, there was no mention of my name, and there was no indication that Kiki was not written in English by José-Louis Bocquet. In the Guardian, I was listed along with the author and the artist, Catel Muller, but despite citing ‘the original French edition’ the reviewer made no mention of the fact of its translation. Indeed, when Picardie quotes Kiki the woman, she does so in English; the original conversation may conceivably have taken place in English, but I doubt it. (There’s an unedited version of the review here.)

Do I find this frustrating? Of course I do. It’s maddening to work on a book for months to have your work go quite literally unnoticed. But I’m a new translator, and I’d rather not be accused of sour grapes. If I’m honest, and I shouldn't be, I would have been only delighted with an ‘ably’ from the Guardian – so kill me. When I have a few ‘ably’s and ‘seamlessly’s under my belt, I’m sure I’ll grow to hate them too. I am comforted to know that I’m not alone in this, of course; as already discussed on this blog, reviews of Michael Waaler’s excellent translation from the German of Cash: I See A Darkness was hailed in awed tones for the echt (!), home-grown sound of Johnny Cash’s voice, as if it had been phrased by the German author, Reinhard Kleist. Infuriating, misleading, bizarre, you name it, but certainly not anything along these lines:

‘[Reviewers’] inability to [devise an intelligent way to review translation] is a product of intransigent dilettantism and tenacious amateurism, the menacing two-headed monster that runs rampant through the inhospitable landscape peopled by those who write reviews.’ (32)

Yes, reviewers, myself included, must come up with a better way to review translation, but there are a few realities to overcome first. Grossman says that she gave up translating poetry for prose because the going rate for translating a sonnet from Spanish to English was $7. Fair enough. I will receive €30, before tax, for my 160-word review of Grossman’s 160-page paperback ­– it used to be €60, but there have been cutbacks at the paper – and I’m to return the completed review in a week or ten days. I never know what I’ll get until I get the email, which I quite like, but it does mean that I can’t do research ahead of time. Sometimes, I’ll get £60 for a 600-word review.

So riddle me this; assuming I get a book to review that’s been translated from Italian or French (and not Russian, Arabic, or any of the many languages I don't read), to up my reviewing game, I would have to order and receive a copy of the original from the Continent, (presumably at my own expense), read both the English and the original, compare the two, and cover both in 160 words, for less than €30, in a week? Sounds like a $7 sonnet to me.

(For reference, the word count for the two paragraphs below is 150.)

I like reviewing, and I’ll do it despite the daft fees as and when I can. As a translator and someone who works with translators, I’m a good candidate to review translations. In fact, I may be the best candidate some papers have, and I still have no choice but to resort to the lame tactics to which Grossman correctly objects. What’s more, the papers I occasionally review for review more translation because I remind the editors with every email how much I like to review translation.

Failing an entire re-haul of the system, whereby readers embrace translation and want to read about it in their weekend supplements, publishers provide press releases with as much bio and availability-for-interview info about the translator as for the author, bilingual-only reviewers are given twice as long and three times the fee to review works in translation – what should we do in the meantime?