Book Reviews: Who Should Write about Literature in Translation?

By David Varno

Translation was a central subject with a panel of book review editors this week, at the Center for Fiction in New York. The event, “Book Reviews, Revamped,” was put on in partnership with the National Book Critics Circle, and moderated by the organization’s president, Jane Ciabattari. She addressed four editors of long-established review venues with questions on the shifting space for book criticism, from print to online, and from established, “authoritative” sources to new blogs and web zines, and asked them to talk about how their publications have adapted and what they have planned for the future. Jennifer McDonald, Staff Editor at the New York Times Book Review, explained that her department uses the Times’s website to supplement the content of their Sunday print section, but that in the future, they may be using the print section to supplement the website. Either way, they are able to expand their content and contributor base, as they did for the December 31st issue, "Why Criticism Matters."

Barbara Hoffert, editor of Library Journal's PrePub Alert, is covering more books than she used to, and much earlier than she used to, sometimes nine months in advance. Among the areas that she is able to give more coverage to is literature in translation, and she explained how libraries are able to expand the market for translated books because of novels like Stieg Larsson’s. Apparently, now that more readers are becoming comfortable with reading in translation, librarians are able to turn their patrons onto books from other authors who write in the language from which a very successful book originated. The librarians gain permission to buy these books because of positive advance reviews. Craig Teicher, Senior Web Editor for Publishers Weekly and editor of the new blog PWxyz, noted that he makes a point to cover everything in translation from Open Letter and New Directions, as well as work from other small presses like Graywolf.

The situation for print reviews has just become luxurious for the Wall Street Journal, with a new book section in the Saturday edition. Editor Robert Messenger said that the company’s new approach to print content, based on consumer research, has shifted from advertisement- to consumer-friendly. This means more context and less plot summary, and correctives vs. takedowns. The section is fertile ground for old-school literary conversation, and it’s very exciting to have. Unfortunately, due in part to Messenger’s old-school views on translation, there is a dearth of translated books. They missed the latest Marías, for example, because the WSJ didn’t have a reviewer who could be trusted to determine whether “the translation was right.” Messenger also missed Lydia Davis’s Madame Bovary, because no one was available to “do it right.” I can see the logic on the latter; the review is not of Flaubert, it’s of the translation. But for new books, and books that are breaking into the American market for the first time, shouldn’t the criteria be different? How important is it for the reviewer to be fluent in a book’s original language? Why prevent a book for entering the conversation based on that? If a book can speak to us, hasn’t the translator done his job? There will always be time for the experts, and new translations if necessary.

To download a podcast of the entire panel, visit the NBCC’s blog Critical Mass



I do think the reviewer should be fluent and thus capable of spotting infelicities.


As a translator, I would certainly welcome a review by someone fluent in both the source and the translation language, but it’s much more important to me, and to readers, to know what a trusted critic thinks of a piece as a work of literature in English.

If translations aren’t to be reviewed unless the critic can read both languages, those from languages less widely spoken by English speakers will seldom be reviewed at all.


That’s a fair point, Sandy, and thank you for making it.  It can be embarrassing for the publisher, the translator (not to mention the author), and everyone involved, the longer that infidelities go unchecked.  But they are the first ones responsible to avoid them.  Once we have the text, it’s the text that counts, in my humble opinion. 

Thank you, Lola, for highlighting the importance of reviews and citing what you’re looking for as a translator.

In a third direction, Rivka Galchen just did an interesting thing by reviewing the Bovary for Bookforum as a LYDIA DAVIS text.


The criteria should be different for books that have been translated before, because it is to some degree about *this* translation over *that*. But for never-before translated books, I imagine that most READERS, unless the translation is egregiously bad, aren’t much interested in hearing about the translation in and of itself. Except, of course, for loosely translated or derivative work.

I think there’s a lot of lip-service payed to translators by reviewers who have no idea what they’re talking about…“In X’s sparkling translation…” I can certainly understand why, but it’s an easy out and undermines thoughtful commentary.

I occasionally marvel at the rhythms and movement in a piece (as in, for example, “Visitation” by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky), and I imagine that the way the work comes together is the responsibility of the translator, but I also don’t know if they are letting the work come through, or if those flourishes (for lack of a better word) are the translator’s creation. Reading, for instance, different translations of *The Divine Comedy* or the two Prousts, it’s easy to see the sorts of decisions translators make and to what degree they make a work their own.

As a reviewer, that’s a risk and points to the need for fluency, but on the other hand, it’s a risk worth taking if it the alternative is not talking about the book at all.


I review translations pretty often, sometimes from languages I read and often from languages I don’t, but even where I can read the original language I very rarely sit the two texts side by side to compare them. I tend to assume, on the whole, that the translator - a good translator, working for a good publisher, in a highly competitive market - hasn’t wildly misunderstood what the original is saying. I tend to assume their basic competence in the source language. For me the difference between a good translation and a great translation is what the translator can achieve with his/her English. I assume that they will ‘get it right’, broadly speaking - but some will get it right *brilliantly*. Not simply because they understand things in the original that lesser translators will have misunderstood, but because they are masterful, supple writers of English. I can’t calibrate the level their reading comprehension, they get the benefit of the doubt there; it’s their finished, published piece of *writing* that I’m reviewing. Just as I can’t review an English-language novel by comparing it to what it looked like in the author’s head when s/he started planning it, the fully-executed translation has to stand alone and be judged as a piece of finished writing. That’s how readers will experience it, after all.

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus