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On Reviewing Translations: Confessions of a Book Reviewer (of works in translation)

By Jonathan Blitzer

There is an anecdote about translation—which, fittingly, I´ve only come across second-hand—that involves an enthusiastic Ernest Hemingway gushing to a friend that finally, with a new translation of War and Peace, he can get through the whole novel.  His friend then says, of the translation: "They say it can be improved upon.  I'm sure it can, although I don´t know Russian."

Reviewing works in translation there´s really no escaping what feels like the empty, or non-committal, response of Hemingway´s friend.  The reviewer rarely has the original in front of him; space is excruciatingly tight, and there´s often little to go on.  What´s more, the text has not come directly to him but through the hands—sometimes expert, sometimes not—of a translator.  The translation Hemingway was talking about was by Constance Garnett, who in a way was refracting Tolstoy through a sensibility not terribly different from Hemingway´s own.  (Which was enough to prompt Joseph Brodsky to complain that readers confused the prose of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky because they were all simply reading the prose of Constance Garnett.)  So maybe Hemingway was being slyly self-congratulatory.  But there´s Hemingway´s friend, too, and in his case (as often in ours) griping about a translation almost seems an instance of biting the hand that feeds you.      

So, under the circumstances, how do we review a translated work on "its own terms"? How can we make the best of what we have?  To be critical without being unfair, to praise pointedly and without cliché?

There is a certain paradox to reviewing the work in translation.  The translation is both utterly immediate (its effects totalizing) and at the same time impossibly elusive.  As Daniel Hahn points out, you´re barely conscious of a good translation most of the time—and he´s right, although this is just a manner of speaking.  You may appreciate the translation but think of it as the author´s achievement, forgetting, in a sense, that the book was basically written twice. 

Other contributors have proposed ways out of this vicious circle, from mentioning the translator´s name upfront, alongside the author´s, to asking after convergences or discrepancies between known facts about the author´s original language and the language of the translation.  All are smart and invaluable suggestions—unsurprising that they should come from three distinguished translators.  But the two examples they cite of good reviews are somewhat particular. In both cases, they are of books that have been translated before, and the first example is one of those sprawling James Wood reviews for the  New Yorker, in which he seems to have all the space in the world.

This entry is for book reviewers who aren´t James Wood nor Michael Dirda, and who don´t necessarily have the luxury of comparing new translations of a text with older ones.  These are writers who have between 500 and 1,000 words, are pressed for time and space (a distinguished line, by the way, of reviewers under the gun), and—most importantly—are reading a work in translation by an author they´ve never read before, from a language they don´t know firsthand.  These reviewers have maybe three sentences (if that many) to comment specifically on the subject of the translation because everything else about the book is new and has to be laid out for the reader. 

What then?  In a way this may sound like an adapted version of what others have mentioned, but it´s worth saying just the same.  To invoke an author is to conjure her translator, so a reference to one means acknowledging the other, and this should appear in plain sight in the review.  To illustrate the point, I´ve pulled some choice lines from recent reviews we´ve published at WWB:

- " …the fluent and vibrant translation which also enhances the almost electric, centrifugal quality of [the author´s] sentences";

- "…the agile translation gives [to one character] the fitting voice of a polished academic who has lost his bearings"; 

- "It’s a testament to the translator . . . that the stories remain so alive and arresting today";

- "With this English-language Sosnowski, [the translator] has contributed a new voice to the canon of writers descended from Ashbery and Schuyler, and, in the process of establishing such lineage—here, across international lines—he has helped further define the bounds of poetic language. "

Admittedly, these extracts are all positive evaluations of translations.  And it´s harder to find examples with this level of attention to detail that level harsher judgments and that are also illustrative, for our purposes.  But what I mean to draw out is that each of these examples shares in the common conviction that the author and the translator are fused together in an unavoidable way.  Author and translator jointly conceive of the text a reviewer is reading, to the extent that "the electric, centrifugal quality of the author´s sentences," for instance, is a thing we can only observe by simultaneously referring to the translator.  A character´s idiosyncrasies and affectations—features that define him within the world of the novel as conceived by the author—are only known because the translator has seen to it that he sounds "like a polished academic who has lost his bearings.¨" What I love about the last example is the idea of the Polish poet Sosnowski having a separate identity in English, brought into being by his translator, who, in the process, enriches the poetic language of English by importing in effects from another language.         

It´s a translator who says in Isaac Babel´s "Guy de Maupassant" (with apologies for not quoting from Peter Constantine´s indispensable translation, which I don´t have on hand) that "a phrase is born into the world both good and bad at the same time.  The secret lies in a slight, an almost invisible twist.  The lever should rest in your hand, getting warm, and you can only turn it once, not twice."

In a way, this says everything and nothing about how we might handle works in translation.  The translator´s task is a life-and-death affair, and that "invisible twist" saves or dashes a phrase born into goodness and badness at once.  We'd hope a reviewer could tell us whether or not we've witnessed a single turn of the lever, or else that fatal second twist.  But to harbor this hope in good faith we must acknowledge first that the author is forever giving birth to twins—and more, that the "author" as we´ve come to know her may, after all, be "authors."


Jonathan Blitzer is an editor at Words without Borders, and a writer and translator currently based in Madrid.  His recent series of translations of short fiction from Madrid is appearing monthly in the magazine. 

Published Apr 7, 2011   Copyright 2011 Jonathan Blitzer

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