I sometimes try to stop and feel the pain of people reviewing translations. Knowing that the translation is a key part of the text, but rarely able to read the original, reviewers must make educated guesses about what the translator has done right or wrong, and what has been added or subtracted. This is a challenge: do you credit the author with structure, characterization, and pace, and credit the translator with the flow and musicality of the prose? It’s rarely so simple—indeed, a poor translation can cause structural problems with a book. Clunky word choices can flatten characters and awkward sentence structure can deaden the pace of the story.
No wonder, then, that so many reviews of translations dispose of the translation in a single sentence—sometimes a single word. To say that a book “is ably translated by X” or “in X’s able translation” is so commonplace in reviews it has become cliché. I always wince when I see “ably” in a review, because it signals that the reviewer knows they should mention something about the translation, but doesn’t know what that something should be. Needless to say, translators are often unhappy with the treatment they get in reviews.
For critics who don’t know the source (original) language, there are some strategies you can employ when reviewing. For example, one option is to read another translation, if possible, and compare the two texts. You can see this approach in recent reviews (here and here) of Clive James’ retranslation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, or Ian Dreibatt and Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsy’s simultaneously published translations of The Enchanted Wanderer by Nikolai Leskov. These comparative reviews put the translation front and center, using the other point of view to weigh whether the translator’s choices line up with the author’s intent. This is more what translators would like reviews to look like. But we also admit that such an approach is too academic for most readers, and so reviews of that nature have a more limited appeal.
For reviewers who feel caught between a rock and an angry translator, Susan Bernofsky, Jonathan Cohen, and Edith Grossman, all translators themselves, have published a wonderful list of recommendations for reviewers, which I hope reviewers (and readers generally) will make use of. Their piece highlights a few key points about translation.
The first is about rules. One of the most frustrating things about translating is how rare it is for any word or sentence, no matter how simple, to have a single “correct” translation. So learning to translate becomes about learning rules—of grammar, meaning, and style—but also getting a feel for when to apply which rule, or when to break one. In that sense translation becomes less about rules and much more about taste, and learning to refine your taste. This is what makes a translator an artist, not a technician—we are not mechanically applying a series of rules, we are leveraging knowledge and sentiment and judgment to (re)produce a unique work of art. In this spirit, I think it’s right that Bernofsky, Cohen, and Grossman’s list should be taken as advice, not rules—to be applied according to the reviewer’s (hopefully good) taste.
My second thought is a little broader. The last item on the translators’ list asks the reviewer to consider whether the translated work contributes “to the literary life of the English language, to our speech, art, and sensibility.”
I love this question. When the answer to those questions is yes, that’s when translation is at its best. It’s at the heart of why we translate, and why we read translations: we hope they will enrich cultural knowledge and literary practice in our own languages. So while a translated text is a unique piece of art and the translator an artist, not a technician, it’s important to remember that the act of translation isn’t about us—it’s about enriching our collective culture.
Here I often draw a parallel with the theater, where I have worked for many years onstage and off. Putting on a play takes a team of dozens or even over a hundred people—designers, choreographers, writers, directors. Like translators, these people are not “just technicians,” they are true artists, and they all work their butts off. Each of them gets their credit in the program, but at the end of the show only the actors get to take a bow. From the start I have thought of translators as kin to those off-stage artists. Like them, it will always be our lot to stand in the wings during the curtain call, clapping along with the audience, all the while knowing they could never have done it without us.
The difference, I think, is that a translator is not only an artist but also a campaigner. Translators must act as cultural ambassadors for the languages and cultures they represent, and the best translators take an active role in promoting their writers. Our work raises the profile of a country’s literature and of foreign literature generally. Reviewers have a key role to play in this process of opening up Anglophone literature. By engaging critically and in a sophisticated manner with translation, they can help to bring readers to new literary traditions and thereby enrich our language, our culture, and our literature. Anglophone literary culture suffers from being too isolated and inward-looking—taking translation and translators seriously can help address the problem.