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On Reviewing Translations: Daniel Hahn

By Daniel Hahn

I’m a translator, whose translations get reviewed regularly in the mainstream press; I’m also a reviewer who reviews translations regularly in the mainstream press. In probably more or less even numbers, I’d guess—for each one I get, I write one, give or take. Inevitably my feelings about what reviews are for aren’t quite the same when I’m a reviewer as when I’m a reviewee. (For one thing, I tend to like the ones I write, and find fault with the ones I get. No surprises there, then.)

As translators, we often say that our job is to be as invisible as possible—you, the reader, shouldn’t notice we’re there at all. You should reach the end of the novel and be brought up short, thinking, “But hang on a sec, I don’t speak Portuguese! How did that happen?” It should be the ultimate compliment when our work is ignored. So why, when reviewers praise a book and omit to mention the translation, do we always complain? Is it ego? No—or not exactly.

As it happens, I often don’t mention the translator of a book I’m reviewing. I don’t feel any obligation to do so. In a five-hundred-word review there will be any number of things I’m not going to write about. Some reviews will be more interested in plot or structure, others in character or context or content or voice or humour, or the jacket design, the title, how it fits in with the rest of the author’s books, other work on the subject, the arguments it posits, etc. Not all of it will fit into my five hundred words. I write about the things that I think are particularly important to the book, and particularly striking to me as a receptive reader, and pass over the rest. And I accept that in reviews of my work, too; I’ve recently translated a thriller that comes out later this year, and my job there is to be as inconspicuous as possible, let the author’s plot do its thing and get out of the way as it hurtles by. Really, the last thing I want in such a book is for people to notice the prose. The reviews, then, will be about the plot and the pace, not the poetry. That’s as it should be—that’s how I’d review such a book, anyway.

But… I expect reviewers to have some understanding of what the job of a translator entails, and what the translator’s contribution to the book is. If a book has an unusually beautiful jacket design, it’s nice of a reviewer to say so, but how many reviewers would dream of suggesting that the novelist him/herself is responsible for it? I’m sure John Grisham is a very nice man, and he can put a plot together, but I’d be surprised if he designs his own book jackets, too. The jackets may be effective in shifting copies of his work, but consequently to praise him in a review as “John Grisham, master of jacket design” would be just a touch misleading, right?

So what makes me crazy is when the reviewer praises something that I did and gives the impression that I’m not there. By all means compliment the author on the tightness of the plotting, on the deftness of the characterization, and ignore me—they’re supported by my work, of course, but marginally. But a reviewer who thinks he can praise the rhythm, the texture, the beauty of the prose, the warmth and wit of the voice, without acknowledging who’s responsible—as though those things in an author’s original simply reappear automatically after the mechanics of translation have been applied to a text—that’s a reviewer who simply has no understanding of what translation is. There’s a reason the copyright in my translations belongs to me and not the original author. The plot and the ideas and the themes aren’t mine, but the words are, all of them, and the way they all fit together, too. And if that’s what you’re reviewing, I want credit. (Or, for that matter, criticism.)

I hope I know better than to have written reviews that get this wrong, but I’ve certainly received more of them than I can count. If my contribution isn’t a particularly interesting part of the book, then by all means don’t mention it—but make some attempt to understand what that contribution consists of, so that if the substance of the work you’re talking about actually does belong to me, you can acknowledge that. I take no credit, of course, for the jacket design, typesetting, etc.; someone does, though, and if that’s more interesting than the prose, then by all means mention the designer’s name and not mine and I promise I won’t complain. But if what you’ve enjoyed is my work, say so.

Daniel Hahn is a writer, editor, and translator. His translations include fiction by José Eduardo Agualusa and José Luís Peixoto, and nonfiction by writers ranging from Portuguese Nobel literature laureate José Saramago to Brazilian footballer Pelé. He is currently chair of the UK Translators Association and interim director of the British Centre for Literary Translation.

Published Mar 16, 2011   Copyright 2011 Daniel Hahn

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