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Lily Meyer and Mona Kareem on Their New Series, Close-Up: An Experiment in Reviewing Translation

By Words Without Borders

Today WWB launches its new series Close-Up: An Experiment in Reviewing Translation, a response to the dearth of book reviews that take translators and translation into account. In the conversation below, reviewers Lily Meyer and Mona Kareem talk with WWB about the need for translation-centric book reviews and their vision for the series, which they hope will create space for a new kind of translation criticism. Read the first installment in the series here.


WWB: Lily, it probably makes sense to start with you, since this was your idea. You've been reviewing literature in translation for some time, so I'm curious: What made you hit upon this idea now?

Lily Meyer (LM): I think I’ve had this idea cooking for a while. When I started reviewing, I wrote almost exclusively about books translated from Spanish, which I speak and translate. I then started reviewing books written originally in English, but I think I stuck in people’s minds as somebody who wrote about translation, because maybe three years ago, editors started reaching out to me to review books translated from languages other than Spanish. I think this idea began emerging then. Certainly I’ve been conscious since then that we have literary critics who only write about fiction or poetry or nonfiction, but we don’t really have critics who only write about translation. I began thinking about what it would mean to be a translation critic, and whether I wanted to become one. Whether I could become one, too.


WWB: Mona and Lily, the format of this series raises a few questions. You'll each review a book translated from a language in which you are fluent, and then you'll also review books translated into English from languages of which you have no knowledge. This experiment seems to operate according to a few different assumptions: (1) that we would review a translation from a language we know differently than a book translated from a language we do not; (2) that there is a certain advantage, difficult to quantify, to finding critics who have competence in the original language of a translated book; and (3) that we should be paying more attention to the details of the translator's work. Are these in fact your assumptions? We do seem to run up against one important problem: it may be impossible to find reviewers who are competent in the source language of a translated work of literature. What new light do you expect this series to shed on these perennial problems?

LM: I’m not sure if I expect this series to shed light—I don’t think I ever expect to shed light. (My parents are journalists: that’s shedding light.) What I’d mostly like to do is open up a space for thinking about the nature of translation through a critical lens, and also maybe to issue an invitation to readers and critics to come closer to translation as a thing. Does that make sense? I think people are often scared to write about translation—or even to read it—because it seems so hard to fully understand or describe. It seems murky. So my theory, which I am hoping this series will start to prove right or right-ish, is that by paying careful attention to the details of a translator’s work, we can overcome the tension that parts 1 and 2 of your question express.

To be clear, I don’t think we can overcome that tension completely! I know I write differently about a book translated from Spanish than from Portuguese, and a book translated from Portuguese differently than a book translated from Korean. That seems inevitable to me, since I know Spanish grammar and syntax intimately, Portuguese grammar and syntax roughly through Spanish, and Korean grammar and syntax not at all. But I also think that it would be lazy of me to review a book in Korean and say only that the translation is good, or fluid, or jerky, or stilted. I think that critics should be expected to look for the details that make writing in translation flow or not flow. I also think we can look for those details in a way that is decoupled from the original language. For example, if I’m writing about a book in Spanish, I can identify a construction that was logical in Spanish but shouldn’t necessarily have been preserved in English. But can’t I identify an uncomfortable English-language construction regardless of the language in which it originated? Can’t I question—and I do really believe in questioning in criticism, as well as making statements—why the translator preserved that construction? And if I can (I absolutely can), isn’t it my job to do so?

“I hate to see books pigeonholed or clumped together because their authors came from the same bit of the world.”

Mona Kareem (MK): I think these assumptions are important, and lie at the heart of translation criticism, as Lily suggests. I have engaged with translation as a translator, writer, editor, scholar, and educator. Depending on context, on the setting, I move between these proposed suggestions seeking answers. Sometimes, I read an Arabic novel in translation without reading the original and am able to see what issues or successes have come through in the translation, because I am familiar with the writer’s overall work or because I have knowledge of the literary domain and the genre. Sometimes you read a translation and cannot digest it, not due to some language breach but simply because the writing task did not go well, which could just as easily be an issue with the original work itself. What I enjoy about this series, whether I’m closely comparing the translation and the original or unable to read the original at all, is the game of solutions that comes into sight­—the courage to betray, to rewrite, to montage, as well as the confidence to dissect a text, to choose what points of strength and weakness to emphasize or treat.


WWB: Heretofore, we've only considered linguistic competence. But there is, of course, the question of cultural competence. This, it seems to me, is also something to be grappled with. Or is it? We don't necessarily hold reviewers of English-language literature to that standard. (Would we propose limiting reviews of work by Faulkner to those with some special knowledge of Southern literature?) What are your positions on this?

LM: I actually think cultural competence is a far more serious issue than linguistic competence. At minimum, it goes deeper, and requires a bigger change of mindset to address. For me, it’s impossible to write good criticism about a translated work without acknowledging the limits of my cultural competence, and then doing my absolute best to expand those limits. Not that I think I can become an expert on any culture in the time that it takes me to write a book review! But I can certainly do my homework about the writer, her culture, and that culture’s literary tradition. I can read about the political situation from which the book emerged. I can read other criticism and know when to defer to it.

In general, I think knowing when to defer, and when to admit lack of knowledge, is very important in reviewing. I am never, for instance, going to make a comparison I am not thoroughly equipped to make, or claim a book is the most exciting, or most innovative, or most whatever representative of a literary culture with which I am not intimately familiar. I am also never going to do the inverse: I’ll never compare a book from a given country or culture to the most globally famous book from the same place. This happens a lot with comparisons to Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende, and it drives me out of my mind. Not all Latin American literature is magical realism! And not all magical realism is like García Márquez! To me, one of the most Marquezian writers working today is Nicole Krauss, and she’s a Jew from New York.

I should say, also, that I do not think cultural competence is any less important—or that my obligations, as a critic, to admit my lack of knowledge and then to do my homework are any less—when reviewing work not in translation. There’s a lot of English-language literature whose writers come from very, very different contexts than I do, and I am extremely grateful for that fact. I don’t want to spend my entire life reading and writing about books set in the Jewish households of upper Northwest Washington, DC. But does my DC Jewish upbringing prepare me to write about a novel set in, for example, rural New Mexico without doing research? I think not.

“You would think critics would have grown tired of the comparisons and cliché statements by now.” 

MK: Cultural competence is a big question for Arabic literature in translation, as well as other Third World literatures, especially if we consider the fact that many translations of Arabic literature are published by university presses and are therefore produced and consumed within the social sciences, influencing both writers and translators to choose works of an anthropological nature that can lend themselves to classroom discussions of faraway cultures.

I began to translate literature first from English to Arabic, and then, after migrating to the US, started to translate in both directions. My knowledge of Arabic cultures is vast, but more importantly, I have easier access to networks, resources, and, being a writer, to writers themselves, critics, and publishers. I notice, for example, that sometimes translators rely too strongly on the author for guidance, which is very tricky and does not account for the power dynamic; I can refer you to the case of Marilyn Booth and what Raja Sanea has done to her translation of Girls of Riyadh. The author decided to remove certain cultural aspects to make the work accessible in translation, which instead compromised its cultural value as a feminist text.

I’m sure that, when translating American literature while still in the Middle East, I missed certain parts of my chosen texts, especially when it comes to vernaculars, humor, irony, or references. After years of living here, the cultural task remains equally central; when, for example, trying to translate an excerpt of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, I worked very slowly, as I had to read up on every historical event he mentions, as well as to consider ways to translate AAVE and hip-hop culture, which formed the substance of his novel. It was a valuable learning process, but I also had to play an instrumental role in considering what to translate for the Arabic reader, because I am not interested in translating work that merely informs the reader about x history or event. Rather, I am interested in work that evokes critical questions in the targeted culture or literature­, encouraging readers to think in relational ways, not in passive consumptive ones.


WWB: When you read criticism of works of translated literature, what, to your mind, needs the most urgent remedy?

LM: As I said above, I cannot stand lazy comparisons. I hate to see books pigeonholed or clumped together because their authors came from the same bit of the world. This happens in blurbs as much as in criticism, and I would love for it to not happen anymore.

Also, I am always irritated to be told that a translation reads as if it weren’t a translation. Couldn’t it read like a good translation? To me, it makes no sense to compliment the translator by erasing her work.

“I hope this series will open space for other critics to think about translation.”

MK: I agree with Lily; you would think critics would have grown tired of the comparisons and cliché statements by now. It is absurd that “as if it weren’t a translation” is a common statement in reviews when translated texts make up the core of the Western canon. If we are to discuss how critics in the US, UK, and France perceive works in translation, then we shall return to Lily’s proposal for a translation critic. You cannot have people who regularly review American literature dictate the worth of a new work in translation. They do not have the range to deal with such works, simply because their reviews are often based on their local literary economies.

For these critics, there is no difference between Iraqi writers and Iraq War–veteran writers, just as there is no difference between Moroccan literature and Iranian literature. We all make one alterity that they will attempt to drill holes into using redundant comparisons or some reference book they find online. And I want to emphasize here that expert reviewers are not necessarily much better—scholars sometimes have trouble balancing between a literary text and its politics in the world, often ignoring the location and critiques of a text in its own domain. But this could take us to a whole other discussion of the experiences of literary translators versus academic translators.


WWB: I suspect that, as you both embark upon this project, you already have some expectations, about both how your reviews will differ according to your competence in a translated work's original language and to what extent the lessons learned through this experiment might be applied on a broader level to the field of criticism in English. Could you share those with us? (The first part of this question might coincide with parts of #2.)

LM: I think my answer here is very similar to my answer to #2, which is that I hope this series will open space for other critics to think about translation, and to review translated work more, and more carefully. I do also hope this project will make me lean harder on the habit of asking questions in my criticism—and, to be clear, I mean asking questions that I do not then answer. I’d like to get better at that myself, and also to model it as a potential route into translated work. 

MK: I am hoping that my first review will serve the translation by offering context around the novel and the author, things that the translation itself perhaps cannot be burdened with. I certainly will find myself thinking much about translation as a craft, and about where the process takes us in terms of literary interactions. In my second review, I would like to consider a book of poetry and to think about ways in which a work in translation can be read in relation to—not in separation from—contemporary US poetics. It amazes me how little American writers read of international literatures, usually turning to award-winning titles or noncontemporary works. Bringing various literary scenes into intentional conversations would be a powerful and urgent contribution to make here.


Read the first installment in the series: Lily Meyer's review of Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero.

Published May 14, 2020   Copyright 2020 Words Without Borders

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