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.