By David Varno
This document was submitted to Words Without Borders for our series On Reviewing Translations, based on a collaboration between the three contributors that had been initiated prior to solicitation.
SOME THOUGHTS FOR REVIEWERS OF LITERARY TRANSLATIONS
You ought to review a translation as you would any other book, but please keep in mind that every translation is written twice: first by its author, then by its translator. The work in English represents a confluence of sensibilities, a merging of two creative powers.
For this reason, we think it crucial that you integrate acknowledgement of the translator’s accomplishments into your appraisal of a book with something more than a passing comment like “ably translated.” We know it is difficult to discuss and evaluate translations, and would like to suggest some points we think you should address when you review them.
• Always include the translator’s name in your initial mention of the book and in any bibliographic sidebar.
• If the translation stands out because of its elegance, panache, or daring word choices, by all means say so. If it drags and stumbles, this too is worthy of note, particularly if your conclusions are backed up by examples.
• If the translator has included a note describing his or her approach to the translation, it is useful to summarize the principles mentioned in the statement and to indicate whether the translator’s aims have been achieved.
• When previous translations of a work exist, compare parallel passages so you can indicate the contributions made by the new one.
• If the work of the original author is celebrated for particular literary qualities, it is valuable for the reader to know whether they appear in the translation.
• Most interesting of all for you to consider is this: does the translated work contribute to the literary life of the English language, to our speech, art, and sensibility? In other words, regardless of whether the work is poetry or prose, does the translation expand the boundaries of literary practice in English, introducing new narrative techniques, poetic forms, or modes of telling a story?
Here are two examples of reviews we think are particularly successful at integrating a discussion of the translation into an evaluation of the book under review: Michael Dirda’s review of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, translated from the German by Breon Mitchell (here); and James Woods’ review of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (here).
Reviewers play an important role in guiding readers in their appreciation of literary works. The double authorship of translations presents both a challenge for reviewers evaluating them and an added dimension for readers to enjoy. The writing of the translator—like the performance of an actor or a musician—deserves to be recognized for its essential artistry.
I would add that reviewers need to be aware of their limits.
I once read a strongly negative review in a widely-read publication by an accomplished reviewer, for instance, of a poetry translation. The reviewer felt that the translator’s choices were awkward and inferior to another translation, and to support these judgments, the reviewer looked up the relevant words of the original in the dictionary, not knowing the primary language, and proposed alternatives. It would have been clear to anyone who could pronounce both English and the original language that the translator was trying to convey a sense of the sound of the poem, perhaps at the expense of other aspects of the work, but this was completely lost on the reviewer, and when we are discussing poetry, of course the sound is relevant to the experience of the work.
Of course the reviewer is not usually expected to know the original language, but if one is going to make assertions that depend on knowledge of the source, then one ought have that knowledge.
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