Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Critics and Translators - A Match Made in Heaven?

Seeing as about half the books published in German are actually translations, critics over here often find themselves reviewing translated titles. It's not always easy for them to judge the translation quality, especially if they don't speak the original language. Translators, on the other hand, often feel neglected by critics, rarely or barely mentioned or picked upon for particular word choices rather than getting feedback on the general feel of their finished product.

Now translators - and I write this in the knowledge that I'm no exception - can tend to be a tad self-pitying. You know, we're largely invisible, we always get the blame if something sounds wrong, nobody comes to our parties, we might as well just curl up and die because no one would even notice... Yeah, we do a lot of eating worms, probably because we were all the odd ones out at school and so chose a solitary profession where we can hide behind books for the rest of our lives. Whatever.

In the past, that bitterness came out all unfiltered in the form of complaining letters to the editor and even a negative prize for critics who fail to mention the translator. But a month or so ago, the German Translators' Fund (DÜF) organised a symposium, bringing translators and critics together in Munich to work on ways around the problem. And being critics and having to earn a crust, a couple of those in attendance wrote about it. Andreas Breitenstein gives an intelligent overview in the NZZ, while Lynn Scheurer wrote about it in the Süddeutsche Zeitung - although they didn't put it online, just to rub salt in the wound.

Yes, they both wrote, it's tough for us critics, but translators don't have it easy either. Both of them liked the idea of using translators' forewords more often to highlight the effort and the ideas that go into a translation, though they realised that publishers probably aren't keen on the extra costs involved. They comment on the idea that it is possible to judge a translation's quality by the finished product alone, which is gaining ground and ought to make life slightly easier for critics. And they acknowledge that the state of play is pretty poor, with reviews often either ignoring the translator altogether or - almost worse in my opinion - finding a single adjective to describe the translation (smooth, fluid, the dreaded congenial) but providing no basis for that judgement, which they say is often the result of embarrassed ignorance - a critic being a generalist rather than a specialist. So the two sides appeared to have come together to some extent.

But then last week Katharina Granzin had a piece in the taz about the symposium. Let's just ignore the fact that it was published more than a month after the event - it's just paranoia, we won't listen to those voices telling us nobody cares enough about us to have run the article earlier. What I do have to say is, it really opened my eyes to what it must have been like in Munich. Because from the beginning, Granzin's tone is defensive. She lists the accusations hurled at the critics by angry translators: naivety, superficiality, poor education, no personality, never even tried translating themselves. She continues:

Incidentally, the critic is much worse off than the translator, organised in the translators' association and with excellent networks, who can at least often count on support from the translators' fund or other sources. The majority of German critics, in contrast, are not sitting in warm editorial offices but go about their precarious calling in cold, lonely garrets. These individuals, most of them with an excellent education and practicing their barely paid profession out of an idealism that is difficult to explain, are perfectly capable of recognising the translator's contribution and, where appropriate, willing to honour it in writing. This cannot and should not, however, be a compulsory exercise.

Leaving aside the fact that the DÜF and other sources support only a tiny percentage of translations and the fact that not one single translator has access to a "warm editorial office", the piece as a whole conjures up a picture of a critic majorly pissed off by the whole occasion. Here's what she recommends:

Perhaps translators ought to adopt the cleaning lady hypothesis: "Everything's fine as long as nobody complains." Should their call for more translation criticism really be about making translations better, they can also create specialised structures within their own networks.

I'm trying hard not to scream. Translators in Germany have created their own structures to improve the quality of translations, with workshops and seminars organised on a regular basis, mentoring programmes, residencies, a guest professorship, and many other fantastic things going on. The DÜF itself is the child of a small group of dedicated translators who spent a great deal of time applying for state funding, and now dedicate a great deal of time to supporting other translators. The professional association VDÜ also offers workshops, there are mailing lists and regular get-togethers where translators help each other with their texts. What they're doing now is approaching critics and offering them help to overcome the hurdle of commenting on translations.

And much as I admire the work of cleaning ladies, they too would probably appreciate a word of praise every now and then. I don't know though, I can't afford one for my cold, lonely garret.

Granzin defends her fellow critics to the hilt. Under the prevailing economic conditions, she points out, nobody's going to read the original, even if they're capable of doing so. And the translation challenges aren't always relevant, she says. Translation quality, she maintains, doesn't actually make or break a book.

I personally have two minimum demands of critics:

Firstly, if you mention the book's language, you have to mention the translator in the review itself. It goes without saying that the translator has to be mentioned with the bibliographical details.
And secondly, if you praise the translation, you have to tell us what you thought was good about it. Equally, you can tactfully ignore an uninspired translation if you like or you can go ahead and rip it to shreds - as long as you have some evidence, just as I'd expect for any other aspect of a review.

I'd be interested to hear what readers think - do you want to read about the translation itself in a book review or does it just leave you cold?


Pam said...

I am glad you addressed Granzin's snippish taz article! I read it the day it came out because I subscribe to the taz and I should have written one of those bitter letters-to-the-editor but I couldn't be bothered. Like most translators I hate it when the reviewer talks about how wonderful the language is and doesn't even mention the translator's name. As a reader, I would like to know whether the translation is any good before I invest in a book. I don't know how many non-translator readers care about this, though.

Matt J. said...

As a U.S. reviewer, even when reviewing books translated from German, in which I have some fluency, I admit I tend to go for the dreaded one-word commentary, or make no comment at all. I have immense respect for translators and their work. But I don't have access to the original text. And by addressing the quality of the translation at all, I am at best just making a guess about its values. I risk making judgment on a involved process that might have taken years, something I know nothing about. (And editors are likely to call me on it if I do discuss the translation. They sometimes worry using space for that kind of discussion will alienate the vast majority of people reading the review.) I see it as a disservice to the translator to suppose I really know about the tens of thousands of small decisions and choices they made in their work. I rely on the hope that if the review of the book is good, the translator assumes it's their work I'm really reviewing, not the original book. But that too is the secret fear I assume a lot of publishers have. They're banking on the translator, of course, not the author.

kjd said...

Thanks, Pam. That's about how I feel too.

Matt, thanks for your honest comment. I hope that by raising our public profile in general in all kinds of ways (including initiatives such as the Munich symposium), translators can help other people to understand what goes into our work.

I have to say though that the translator probably doesn't assume it's their work you're really reviewing - they probably assume you've just forgotten they exist like all the other reviewers (that paranoia is hard to shake).

When I review translations here on the blog, I rarely compare with the original. Because I translate myself though, I think I can sometimes spot both uninspired and sparkling translations.

And there are things that are really obvious giveaways - excellently rendered dialogue, less obvious word choices, keeping a little of the difficult foreignness, for example. Or just genuinely smooth reading with a writer you'd expect it from, or a challenging reading experience with a more challenging author that keeps making you stop and think.

Anyway, as you might expect I do encourage you to go ahead and splash half a sentence or so on the translation. But most of all I'm glad you're thinking about it.

Ben said...

Ohhh... poor translators! I would come to your party, but you don't invite me...
Ok, serious. I think that you don't get half the credit you deserve. But up to now I thought this was a german problem. I always got the impression that anglo-saxon translators have far a better standing than german translators. Seems that I was wrong.
Perhaps your situation would improve if you got more attention from the public. Do you think it would help if your name would be published on the frontispiece? So the public would notice that you had your part in bringing this book to the reader.

Dan said...

I'm surprised when reviews of English books translated into German don't mention the translation. Surely a non-negligible minority of readers will be looking at the review to decide, among other things, whether to read the original or the translation?

Just found this blog today, by the way. and love it. Wondering why I've never run into it before, while gradually paging through the archives.