On Reviewing – Translations and Other Things

There are several controversies/discussions/debates swirling around my Twitter at the moment which are at least partly related. There are issues about how to review translations, what to do if you think a translation is flawed or poor, and about whether to publish bad reviews at all. I don’t yet know whether I can collect my thoughts on these matters into something coherent, but my brain won’t let go so I’m going to try.

I’ve written a bit about Reviewing Translations before, but things have moved on since then, and if the “Translators’ Toolkit” that Susan Bernofsky talked about has appeared, I haven’t seen it. Katy Derbyshire has been writing about this too, recently, in response to a couple of other blog posts: On Appreciating Translations. I want to echo this, and something I quoted from Kate Briggs in This Little Art:

I think we owe translators, and perhaps also ourselves, some recognition of what it might have meant to have handled every single word (space and punctuation mark) of the writing-to-be-translated, to have taken a decision in relation to its every single word (space and punctuation mark), and indeed to have written every single one of its parts […], which might in turn be another way of saying each and every one of its risks.

The decisions that we take when we translate are sometimes conscious, agonised, wrestled over for anything from minutes to months, and sometimes more or less automatic as we fall back on default options or when a text is (seems?) simple, or when we’re up against a tight deadline. Sometimes these defaults can be misleading, and this can lead to the kind of error that a reviewer might spot. Or they might just make the text boring. Or they might be perfectly fine. And when we’ve wrestled with a sentence and finally feel that we’ve done it justice, we’d like that recognised in some way, but a reviewer might not feel that they have the tools to do so…

Well, if you enjoy a translated book, think about the fact that the words you’re reading were written in your language by a translator in response to the words written in another language by the author. If you don’t enjoy it, why is that? It’s important to distinguish between a good translation of a book that’s not to your taste and a poor translation. While it can be hard to be certain, it’s worth wondering whether the writing is deliberately awkward or just stilted: is the translator aiming to replicate an effect? That’s probably more likely than just missing the point or being unable to write, at least in a properly published, well edited book, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, there’s the question of whether bloggers should publish bad reviews at all. Some people feel that there’s something dishonest about only ever blogging about books you love. Other people feel that it’s hurtful or harmful to the author to berate a book that you hated. Some people want to engage with whatever they read, and others to provide a recommendation service. Personally, I want to write about books when they prompt some kind of response. Usually that’s because I’ve enjoyed them, but sometimes it isn’t. I don’t want to be unkind, just to be fair and honest. There has to be room for a range of approaches, and a place for balanced, constructive criticism. I guess, like with so many things, it comes down to a big fat “it depends”. It depends who you’re writing for, and why. I’m not writing for a huge audience, and it’s mostly about putting things into words when they’re buzzing around my head.

I can’t quite get behind the idea of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. The test I often propose to my kids is to think whether what they’re about to say is true, and if so, is it kind, or helpful? Perhaps the way we’re inclined to review comes down as much to personality type as anything else. Are some of us just incurably honest, or overly inclined to see both sides of everything? Hmm. Anywhere, here are some questions that I think are worth asking around critique:

  • What purpose does it serve to criticise a book?
  • Is it me trying to maintain my sanity within a long tradition of parents applying adult logic to cartoons for humorous effect (for example)?
  • Is there something harmful in the way a book depicts a character?
  • Is it perpetuating stereotypes, falling into lazy tropes such as victim blaming in crime fiction?
  • Is a mistranslated word important in the overall scheme of things? If it changes things significantly, then it must be possible to point that out.
  • If it doesn’t, is there any need to nit-pick?
  • Is this a mistake, or an issue, that the author/translator/others can learn from?
  • If so, is this the best venue to raise that?

Is there anything I’ve missed? I’d be interested to hear others’ thoughts.



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, Reading, Reviews, Translation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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