Wednesday, 9 July 2008

They Seem to Like It, Saša

That impish* writer Saša Stanišić has posted a long list of glowing reviews of How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone on his website. Things like "brilliantly cockeyed prose," "rich with experience and imagination," "an astonishing accomplishment." Most of them are from the USA, with one each from Canada and the UK (from the Guardian), although that may be because they were collected by his US publisher, Grove Atlantic. Or because Stanišić went on a brief tour of the States in June and has yet to hit Britain - he'll be in Edinburgh on the 9th of August though.

None of the review extracts mention the novel's translator, Anthea Bell, although many of them refer to Stanišić's use of language. The Guardian review does at least credit Bell prominently, unlike the publisher's website. The translator Ross Benjamin also comments briefly on the quality of Bell's work in his Bookforum review. I'm far too lazy to look up all the other reviews in full, so I'll just assume that Bell's name doesn't feature in them - which would be standard practice in reviewing translated fiction, with notable exceptions.

I find this rather worrying. Anthea Bell is the closest the UK has to a "well-known translator" - she even has her own Wikipedia entry, for goodness sake. Yet hardly anybody seems to find it worth mentioning that such a venerated person has worked on the book; almost an honour in itself if you ask me.

A couple of years ago, a group of British translators took it upon themselves to gently remind newspaper reviewers that books don't get put into English automatically - there is a person involved and their work is an artistic process. That did produce results of a kind, with most of the UK papers now at least crediting the translator in the review heading. During the campaign itself, they also managed to rustle up the odd sentence about the quality of the translation, although that would seem to be slipping again.

Perhaps reviewers don't feel qualified to judge the quality of translations, especially as few of them will be able to compare with the original, or indeed have the time to do so. American PEN has a very useful guide tucked away on its website that should offer some support in that case. If only reviewers would read it. And if only more publishers would make things that little bit easier for them by providing the information they need.

*I think "impish" is the perfect word to describe Saša Stanišić. In person, he sometimes exudes a real sense of boyish glee that makes you think he'd never experienced anything negative in his whole life. In fact I thought it was my own description, but then I noticed it in the Los Angeles Times review. So I assume Donna Seaman has also seen him close up...

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