Tuesday, 29 March 2011

On Reviewing Translations

The ever-excellent Words Without Borders is running a series of thoughtful pieces on how to review translations. So far we've had Daniel Hahn and Tess Lewis, both of whom translate and write reviews and so have a unique insight - but take very different stances. And also some basic guidelines from Susan Bernofsky, Jonathon Cohen and Edith Grossman. These are not dissimilar to the PEN American Center's reviewers guidelines for translated books.

As I've mentioned before, the German literary translators' association VdÜ has been organising events where critics, editors and translators get together to discuss the matter. The reactions in the press were mixed, with one critic in particular getting very defensive. As some of the WWB pieces show, translators often see the matter differently to reviewers - and aren't as aware of the constraints on critics as we perhaps should be. But as I see it, a review should at the very least mention the fact that a book has been translated, and from which language, and by whom. Daniel Hahn points out that translators hold copyright to the translated text, and for that reason alone we deserve mentioning in a review.

I'm no great friend of the "one-adjective acknowledgement" - in German that adjective is "kongenial" (perfectly matched) and in English "smooth". Or occasionally "mellifluous", which means much the same thing but sounds better. Funny that the Germans are so much more effusive in this respect, but perhaps that reflects their generally greater understanding of foreign languages. Yet despite this personal allergy on my part, I still prefer this perfunctory approach to the common tactic of ignoring the translator entirely.

The books I've translated so far haven't got a huge amount of review coverage. But here's one piece in which I'm not mentioned. And you know what? I'm with Daniel Hahn here - it doesn't bother me incredibly in this case. The book in question is not a literary title and the writing itself isn't what stands out about it. So there's no need to go into how well I did my job. Nevertheless, I would expect to have been acknowledged in the bibliographic details at the bottom. My dream review? Go here - where Charlotte Ryland does absolutely everything right, including tickling my ego.

I'd like to hope this discussion will take the fear out of reviewing translations for some critics and arts editors - and that in turn prompts more reviews in the English-speaking press.


berlinorama said...

That was a splendid review of your translation! Congratulations on getting more than the one-word accolade.

Jen Rickard, Digital Media Editor said...

Great post, and I love Words without Borders. This is a side-note but it came to mind as I was reading your post, we covered German-language crime fiction in our May 2011 issue of World Literature Today. Would you be interested in reading it? If you're not subscribed, you could request a free sample issue here: http://www.ou.edu/worldlit/free-sample-issue.html