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A Comment on “Viva Translation”

By Margaret Carson

Luis Magrinyà's essay "Viva Translation," translated by Anne McLean and published in our current issue, prompted this response from translator Margaret Carson. We invite readers to join the discussion by posting in the comments.

Luis Magrinyà (as translated by Anne McLean) is taking on the contentious topic of how the reviews of books in translation often overlook the translator, and from a welcome perspective outside the English-language publishing world. As a US translator I’d like to see more essays like it. However, I wanted to follow up with a few comments:

Magrinyà’s favorable remarks are mostly based on reviews he read when Lydia Davis’s retranslation of Madame Bovary came out a few years ago. When an acclaimed translator such as Lydia Davis retranslates an acclaimed novel, we can expect reviews by acclaimed writers—in this case, Julian Barnes and Jonathan Raban, whose reviews bowled Magrinyà over because of their length and thoroughness. But for a book as canonical and well-known as Madame Bovary, what else could they have commented on and judged if not the translation itself? There’s no reason to introduce the book to potential readers. Reviews of retranslations will almost always spotlight the work of the translator.

Magrinyà comments, “Here in Spain, translators often complain, with good reason, that their work is not sufficiently valued, and it is in fact very rare to find examples of such erudition and commitment in our literary press when it comes to evaluating the quality of translations.” If you exclude the case of retranslations, you could easily substitute “US” for “Spain” and the statement would be true for reviewing conventions here.

Also Magrinyà runs through the percentages of books published in translation. The latest data on Spain, he says, from the literary translator association CEATL, is 27.2% (for 2010). In the US the figure “3%” is always used. (By the way, I have no doubt that the percentage of translations in the US is pitifully small, but all I can do is cite the Three Percent website as a source. I don’t know how that 3% was actually arrived at—what is the base number? is it 3% of all book published in the US? of all books of a literary nature?)

Back to the statistics from Spain, I’d like to point out to Magrinyà that the 27.2% includes translations from many different languages—I suspect that a good portion are translations into Spanish from English, but works from many other languages (including trashy books) are surely being translated for readers in Spain. I’m not quite sure of the steps in his argument, but it seems that there’s something about this 27.2% vs. 3% incongruity that explains to him why reviewing practices of translations in the English-speaking world are better, because translations are so infrequent as to constitute an event worth reviewing, and reviewing at length, as shown by Barnes’ and Raban’s extended pieces on the Davis translation.

Every now and then, there’s a spectacularly good review of a translation that comments in detail about its nuances and gives credit to the translator, but this mostly happens when the book is a retranslation. Despite the disparity in the percentage of works in translation published in the two countries, I’d say the state of translation reviews in the US (which I’m most familiar with) is probably pretty much the same as in Spain. 

Published Feb 7, 2014   Copyright 2014 Margaret Carson

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