On Reviewing Translations: Tess Lewis

By Tess Lewis

Being on the receiving as well as the dealing end of reviewing literature in translation, I’m particularly sensitive to the issues involved. More than three quarters of the reviews and essays I’ve written over the past decade have been about translations, a number of them from languages that are completely inaccessible to me: Norwegian, Hungarian, Chinese, Czech, Romanian, and Serbian, among others. Ideally, of course, reviews of foreign literature would be written by critics fluent in both the source and the target languages with enough space to discuss not just the work and its cultural context, but the translation as well. However, the reality is that, given the inexorably shrinking column inches for reviews, dwindling attention spans, and disappearance of readers interested in any kind of literature, domestic or foreign, translations are lucky to get any notice at all, good, bad, or indifferent. The most important, though not always most interesting, criterion of a translation is whether or not it reads well in the target language.

As a translator, I’ll readily acknowledge the satisfaction even a single adjective—supple, fluid, accomplished—can bring. I’m happy to take the reviewer’s judgment on face value, without expecting any examples or justifications. So what about my indignation when I read in a recent and primarily positive review of my translation of Julya Rabinowich’s Splithead, “Originally written in German, the text is clunky in places”? Fair enough for English readers: that is what they will experience. However, this is a novel about the dislocation a young girl experienced when she was suddenly uprooted from her native Russia at the age of seven and transplanted to Vienna without any warning or preparation from her parents. The clunkiness is intentional and had to be recreated in the English version. Still, how much can one expect, really, from a 320 word review? At least the book was reviewed and the reviewer acknowledged that it’s a translation—that’s a start.

Taking The New York Times Book Review to task for its neglect of translations is a regular (and vital) sport in the literary blogosphere. Entire weeks can go by without a single work in translation being reviewed. While this is distressing for those of us interested in literary translation, perhaps the Book Review editors have determined that this proportion does, in fact, suit the tastes and interests of their readership. Whatever their reasons, you would think the very scarcity of translation reviews would heighten their sense of responsibility to bring the same intellectual seriousness and rigor to reviews of translated fiction that they do to other reviews. At least I do. So I was more than a little disappointed this past January to read Judith Shulevitz’s review of H.G. Adler’s Panorama, translated by Peter Filkins. Adler is an extremely important, although neglected, German language writer and the translation of his trilogy, of which Panorama is the first volume, is a major literary event. One of the first and very few Holocaust survivors to write about his experiences in German, he used Modernist techniques to mirror, in his fiction, the disorientation and incomprehension experienced by the victims.

In her review, Shulevitz points to the second volume in the trilogy, The Journey, as the greater of the two novels, admitting that she finds The Journey’s intertwining voices and stream-of-consciousness interior monologue challenging. “As best I can tell from Peter Filkins’s deceptively mellifluous translation, Adler often relied on differences in dialect and vocabulary, in speech patterns, rather than on conventional exposition to indicate who was talking or whose thoughts were flowing at any given moment. While it may be possible for a German reader to keep track of Adler’s shifts in tone, they can’t be readily detected in translation.” Leaving aside the fact that the term “deceptively mellifluous” is itself deceptive, it’s hard to imagine that any other section of the Times would allow a writer to get away with an “as best I can tell.” What is the best? The New York Public Library has a copy of Adler’s original Eine Reise to check any mellifluous passages, deceptive or straightforward. And there are certainly plenty German readers a phone call or email away who could establish whether it is possible for them to keep track of Adler’s voices or not and who could help clarify any suspect passages.

Important translations are so rarely reviewed at the length they deserve, that each missed opportunity for an authoritative piece is a double shame. Every translation is inevitably flawed, yet its weaknesses, like its strengths, can be illuminating as long as the reviewers are held to high enough standards. As a start, I propose one simple, inviolable rule: if you’re going to pass judgment on a translation, whether in one word or several paragraphs, whether laudatory or condemning, whether or not you know the original language, you should provide evidence to support that judgment.


Comments

1

As a start, I propose one simple, inviolable rule: if you’re going to pass judgment on a translation, whether in one word or several paragraphs, whether laudatory or condemning, whether or not you know the original language, you should provide evidence to support that judgment.

Absolutely.

Of course, this rule should extend to any review, and not just that of translation.

It surprises me that a reviewer would notice, in Julya Rabinowich’s Splithead, that the text is clunky, without noticing the why of the clunkiness.  Isn’t that the vast (vast) majority of the reviewers responsibility?  To explain, assist in understanding, and add to the critical corpus of a text?  If a reviewer is unable to

In essence, this start is less effective, I would think, than simply avoiding reviewing at all.  In such a short review, each word matters, and each conclusion matters vastly more than in a 3,000 word review.  Thus, highlighting the “clunky” aspect of the text without any caveats as to reason, intent or purpose holds, as a conclusion, greater weight.

I review a lot of translated fiction on my website.  It is a passion of mine, and one that I hope to continue for some time.  I do not - yet - read any other language, which means I am often forced to grapple with matters of language and word choice without having recourse to the original text.  But part of my responsibility as a reviewer is to grapple with exactly these issues.  If a text seems clunky, the question I must ask myself (translated or otherwise) is - why?  Is the text clunky for a reason?  Is the effect created thematically coherent to what I know of the text overall?  Does it fit contextually with what has come before and what may come after?  Does it “feel” like a mistake (ie a typo or missed letter/word), or does it feel like it should be there, for good or ill?  We should not fall into the trap that all translated fiction is, by virtue of it being chosen for translation, worthy or good or of necessarily high quality, but we also shouldn’t assume that mistakes can’t exist, or that odd, unique or unfamiliar literary techniques and styles might be used.

Would a reviewer be making a mistake if they assumed the beginning of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was clunky due to its word choice and restricted grammar?  Yes, they would.  Because the original is in English, there is an inherent expectation that the text as it stands has been chosen carefully, and worded consistently in accordance with the author’s intent.

We should do the same for translated fiction, without question.  Translators are not machines, transliterations (mostly) read as almost pure garbage.  To have written the sentence as it is read has required from the translator a significant expenditure in time and creative effort, and should be considered accordingly.

2

The same phenomenon exists, alas, in German reviews as well, in a culture where translated texts are much more abundant and therefore tend to receive more notice. To publish a quick, unresearched comment about a translation that most likely took months, if not years to finish is not just irritating to both the translator and the publisher, it is a disservice to readers of the review. Especially annoying are reviewers who insinuate that they see problems the translator didn’t notice, that they – given the time and energy – could have done a better job. Thank you for formulating the issue so well.

3

Very well put. Translation is an artistic venture, a complex process of choosing words that reflect not only the primary meaning but the mood and stylistic elements of the original. When encountering a translation that is obviously clunky or awkward or disconnected or any of a variety of intentional styles that arise from mimicking the original’s tone in order to preserve the overall feel of the text, it is unfair for readers to presume that the style is a result of the translator’s own incompetency. Often, readers also forget the historical context of the original work and how that affected the tone of the original and therefore the translation. For example, modern readers often reject the language of English translations of Tolstoy’s works as prosaic, blunt and detached. However, one must remember that this intentionally reflects Tolstoy’s dismal and unromantic examination of themes such as hypocricy,  powerlessness and the nature of morality that in turn influenced writers such as Hemingway and the others that characterized America’s “Lost Generation.” Readers have no right to criticize translations if they have not read the original or at least compared the translation with another.

4

In many a case, comments are never supported by a solid argument, or a justifiable observation.  Very well expressed, Tess.

5

Thank you for your thoughtful and inspiring article. Clearly, we have a common ground that challenges the readers and reviewers’ ‘horizon of expectation’ of content and translation, and the reception of foreign literature in translation particularly in the Anglo-American context.

In the case of reviews on two Egyptian novels Chicago and The Yacoubian Building, much attention has been given to culturally exotic content, while translation is often noticed in a few words, two or three lines. If appealing, it is ‘excellent’, ‘elegant’ or ‘fine’; otherwise it is ‘Jarring’, ‘unidiomatic’, ‘flat’ or ‘clunky’.

Challenging the judgment of literature in translation regardless of the SL has long been under discussion, and I’m delighted to see your article eloquently expressing the issue.

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