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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

Published Jan 24, 2011   Copyright 2011 David Varno

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