On Reviewing Translations: Suzanne Jill Levine tells us what the “Subversive Scribe” might add:

By Suzanne Jill Levine

Throwing one’s hat into this ring can be a two-edged plume, mark my mixed-up metaphor.  If we, wearing our translator hats (though not many of us can afford hats), tell reviewers that any adjective, from “brilliant” to “clunky,” unjustified by examples, just won’t fly, then Professor Horrendo--as Greg Rabassa used to call that nitpicking reviewer of unsuspecting translations—will come up with pointless examples, such as the translator tripping on a false cognate and falling into a library instead of translating librería properly as bookstore.  Well, maybe the translator didn’t make a faux pas but rather took a deliberate step a la Frais d’Astaire  toward the word chosen or chosen word.   

So perhaps, for point two of Susan’s, Edie’s and Jon’s suggestion list, beginning with the phrase “If the translation stands out…” we could add the following: that the reviewer’s conclusions on whether this particular translation stands out like a sore thumb or like Venus de Milo, should be backed up not only by examples, but by examples which demonstrate an interpretative and/or analytical reading on the part of the reviewer, a context which demonstrates an understanding both of the original work and of the translator’s particular approach, and why that approach does or does not hit the mark.  As one of the bloggers already suggested, this kind of deep delving is asking a lot, especially when the review has to be five hundred words or less. 

And oftentimes, the reviewer’s reading, interpretation, or analysis will be subjected to some agenda, hidden to the innocent reader if not to the triumphant or defeated reviewee; after all, reviews, like most forms of journalism, are also fictions.   I am sure many of my fellow translators from Spanish will agree that historically, and even in today’s enlightened age of translation studies, that translations from the Spanish get more than their share of nefarious reviewers and reviews marred by various agendas, in which literary considerations take second or third place to low-brow politics, narcissistic wounds, and clique-isms of all sorts.  Indeed there are reviewers who are perfectly intelligent when reviewing the “high” literature of France or Russia, or of nations in the news like Iran and Lower Mongolia, but often, when it comes to some Latin American writer, particularly one who doesn’t fit in some comfortable niche, that same lucid reviewer will suffer a sudden loss of I.Q. and resort to Babel.

In any case, translators and writers alike, be consoled by the immortal words of Jorge Luis Borges in one of his more infamous non-fictions: “I will burn, Sir, but this is a mere event.  We shall continue our discussion in eternity.”  In other words, let those reviewers do their shtick.

Suzanne Jill Levine


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