By David Varno
This week, we are launching a series to explore the ways that book reviews handle translations. Reviewers and translators each have varied opinions on how translations should be discussed, and on who should be doing the discussing. At a recent panel on the future of book reviewing, review editors stressed the importance of translation coverage, though one admitted that he would rather pass on a translated book than assign it to a reviewer who might not “get it right.” (Getting it right, according to him, means finding a reviewer with the ability to determine whether the translator has been faithful to the original language, and whether or not the translation “sounds” anything like the original text.) The issue came up again the following week, at a subsequent panel of book review editors. One made the point that there are essentially two kinds of reviews for translations, one for books that are appearing in the language for the first time, and another for books that have been translated before. Another editor said he expects an overall level of expertise from his reviewers on both the writer and the language, and a third said that a reviewer does not need to be a specialist in the language the book was written in, in fact she encouraged people to cover works from languages outside of their knowledge to follow their interest in contemporary literature.
We posted a response to the first panel here in Dispatches, subtitled “Who should be writing about books in translation?” Since the conversation has continued among us and among our readers, we’ve decided to invite a group of translators, book reviewers and authors to weigh in with their thoughts. The first, published today, comes from Daniel Hahn, translator of José Eduardo Agualusa’s Book of Chameleons and Rainy Season and José Luís Peixoto’s Piano Cemetery.
Next we’ll hear jointly from Susan Bernofsky, translator of The Tanners by Robert Walser and The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada, Jonathan Cohen, poet and translator of Ernesto Cardenal's Pluriverse: New and Selected Poems, and Edith Grossman, translator of Cervantes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez and more; and then from Lorraine Adams, author of the novel Harbor and regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review and Bookforum; Eric Banks, former editor of Bookforum, senior editor of Artforum, and board member of the National Book Critics Circle; Jonathan Blitzer, book review editor for Words Without Borders; Scott Esposito, editor of Quarterly Conversation; Rigoberto González, poet, book reviewer for the El Paso Times, and board member of the National Book Critics Circle; Tess Lewis, essayist, book critic and translator; and Michael Orthofer, editor of the Complete Review.
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