On Reviewing Translations

Books, glasses, coffee

The life of a book reviewer?
Image from http://www.freestockphotos.biz

Susan Bernofsky at Translationista has had quite a lot to say about the reviewing of translations, and as it’s something I do quite a lot, I have been reading it all with interest. Even as a translator myself, I find it hard to do. If I’m reading a translation it’s generally because I don’t know the source language, or if, as with Sea of Ink for example, I do, then I don’t always have the source text available to me as well. So I’m as guilty as anyone of letting slip such glib generalities as “elegantly translated” or “in so-and-so’s skilful and elegant translation”.

Bernofsky says that in her opinion:

The most important things for the reader of the review to know, in my view, are 1) what the reviewer sees as the strengths and weaknesses (if any) of the book itself, and 2) what the reviewer sees as the strengths and weaknesses (if any) of the translation as a whole.

From: Translation Matters at the 2012 PEN World Voices Festival

But how do we go about doing that? Her recommendation in a Letter to a Reviewer of Translations is to:

Think of the translator as someone possessed, like yourself, of a critical and aesthetic intelligence and engage him on that level, and you’re guaranteed to come up with an interesting assessment of his work.

Well, I hope I can manage that! So: look out for ways the choice of words captures the author’s voice, does or doesn’t sound effective in English, look for details of what I like or don’t like about it. OK. What next? She also has some advice for publishers of translations:

Instead of reproaching reviewers for not addressing our work, we should do everything in our power to make it easy for them to do so. Reviewers don’t want to risk looking like idiots, so they tend to be pretty cautious when it comes to discussing aspects of a book they don’t feel well-informed about, and it turns out that translation is one of these. So let’s inform them. The “Translators Toolkit” will wind up containing suggestions for supplementary information about a book that can be distributed to potential reviewers along with the usual publicity materials a publisher tucks inside review copies before sending them out. The exact recommendations are still a work in progress, but I expect to see a list of suggestions including items like this: a description of the book’s stylistic peculiarities in the original and how the translator sought to address them, status of the author in her original-language context, any particular anecdotes of interest surrounding the translation, etc. These are things likely to interest both reviewers and readers of reviews.

Source: Recruiting for the Reviewer Hall of Fame

Certainly information like that would be enormously helpful in writing about translated books. A translator’s note in the text itself would be another way of providing that sort of information, but sadly those tend to be the preserve of academic texts, classics, things that need some kind of justification for yet another translation. And if we have all the time and space in the world, then we can happily engage with that kind of detail. Sometimes though, whether it’s me on my blog, or a newspaper reviewer with one paragraph for the paperback edition of a translated popular novel, we need to be more concise. What can we do then? I find myself rather in agreement with Charlie O’s comment on the above post that sometimes “all I [care] about as a reader is that the marvelous prose felt like this was how the novel would sound if the author had written in the target language”. He goes on to say:

As a reader of world literature and a sometime reviewer, I hope we don’t create an environment in which reviewers become scholars rather than deep readers who care share their experiences with other possible readers. (Charles Oberndorf)

I think his own review linked to does a pretty good job:

While the writing can be plain, Anne Born’s translation of ” Out Stealing Horses” gives us clause after clause in a way that would drive a persnickety English teacher crazy, but effectively captures the way Trond connects life to the natural world.

Source: Per Patterson’s ‘Out Stealing Horses’

Do you agree? Has anybody got any strategies to share for reviewing translations, particularly when brevity is a virtue? What would you do yourself? What would you appreciate as a fellow translator or reader? And if you notice me falling back into lazy habits in my reviews, give me a poke!


More articles on reviewing translations from Words Without Borders’ series last spring can be found here: On Reviewing Translations

About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
This entry was posted in blogging, Books, Idle musing, Reviews, Translation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to On Reviewing Translations

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful reaction to Susan Bernofsky’s summation of the new translation reviewers’ guidelines (in process). And thanks for the excerpt from Charles Oberndorf’s review. This succinct sentence would be a fine candidate for our Translation Reviewer’s Hall of Fame–and indeed we will include it! We (the translation review committee) are painfully aware of the space and time restrictions of reviewers. Our wish for translators to act as collaborators by offering more information, is intended to make the work of reviewers easier, not harder. If a review is limited to a paragraph, or 750 words, a thoughtful and descriptive sentence such as C.O.’s represents the golden mean. For longer pieces, we hope to provide additional background–essentially, the story of the translation–for reviewers to have at their disposal, to take into consideration. Thanks for the opportunity to engage in dialogue–and if you have any more excellent examples, please send them along!

    • Thank you, too – it’s nice to hear that constraints are taken into consideration. I would hesitate to nominate any of my own reviews, but you’re more than welcome to have a look through them, should you wish… 😉

  2. Pingback: On Reviewing – Translations and Other Things | a discount ticket to everywhere

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s