To my mind, the problem is simple: reviewing literary translations is full of thorny issues and difficult questions, and I am as suspicious of anyone who claims to have answered them as I am of someone who tells me they know what art is.
But! Which reader of Words Without Borders would say that right now what we need are fewer reviews of literary translations?
So, on the one hand reviewing translations is difficult, underappreciated, frequently low-paid, and generally misunderstood, even to those of us who do it a lot. And on the other hand, what we need to improve the lot of both literary translations and reviews thereof are more reviews, not fewer. How to reconcile these two things?
Let us start by rejecting the ideal: a few reviewers that I know of still hold tough to the willfully naïve idea that the translation is a discrete work, separate from and equal to the original. Per this logic, all that has come before is immaterial—the translation is simply evaluated as is.
I’ll repeat it: let us reject that, while at the same time acknowledging the immense work performed by translators, those people who open up the literary world to us. And in fact, let us honor that work by agreeing that this naïve approach is not sufficient. The fact is that a translator’s job is an incredible balancing act, wherein so many things are considered at once: a different language, a different culture, a different writer, a different public, a different set of editorial and publishing standards, just to name a few. All of these things are bound up in each and every decision that a translator makes—in other words, each and every word in a manuscript. To pretend that these choices are immaterial is to choose ignorance and to do a disservice to both the author and the culture from which a book comes.
Like it or not these facts exist, and an honest reviewer must attempt to come to terms with them.
To see why, let's turn this inside out. The title of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace in the Spanish translation is La broma infinita. Broma more or less equals joke, which is a reasonable stand-in for jest. So far so good. Infinita is a pretty clear ringer for infinite. OK.
Now let’s look at cultural context. It is a widely known fact that the title Infinite Jest has heavy allusions to “Hamlet,” and in fact is derived from the line “a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” coming from Act 5, Scene 2. And if you've read Infinite Jest—which includes a dead father haunting a son, vague wars with neighboring lands, and a country more or less in turmoil, the reference to Hamlet is clearly quite rich.
This is pretty much completely lost in the Spanish edition, as the generally accepted translation of the same line of Shakespeare is “un individuo de infinito ingenio, de excelsa imaginación.” The reference simply no longer exists. And then there is the fact that a Spanish-language reader of La broma infinita would have as adulterated a sense of Shakespeare’s central place in all English literature as I would of Don Quixote’s in Spanish.
Just imagine the challenges if instead of talking about English and Spanish, two fairly close languages and cultures, we were talking about something like English and Thai.
My point here is not that every reader, reviewer, and translator should be held accountable for every bit of cultural minutia lost in the movement from the original to the translation. That's ridiculous. My point is that to make a policy of pretending these matters don't exist is to do a disservice to Wallace, his translator, and everyone involved with producing the books in either language. They do exist, and very often they are an important part of evaluating whether or not a translation has been successful in its role as a work of literature.
So what to do?
I share the belief of Jorge Luis Borges that a good book can survive a bad translation. So first and foremost reviewers should trust themselves—if the translation feels good then the original probably is good, and vice versa.
Part of a work’s quality is its originality: if the translation feels like nothing you have ever read before then you are on the right track. So look closer: What is it about this language that feels new, and how has the translator maintained it in his or her rendition?
If the book is obviously working within certain traditions or is overtly alluding to certain texts, how have those things been managed? Is it elegant—seamlessly sewing a little cultural context into a reference-laden paragraph—or is it ugly: one of those terrible superscript numbers followed by a wordy block of footnote at the bottom of the page.
Once you have determined your overall feelings toward a book, we can get down to more minute issues. For instance, matters of consistency and authenticity. If an author uses certain strings of words or images as motifs, are they employed consistently and well by the translator? Reading Thomas Bernhard, an author who loves to lean on favored phrases like flagpoles, I must trust his translator to create pithy, iconic English equivalents of what are surely remarkable originals. If Bernhard’s insults don’t bite, he has been disserved.
Does the language (particularly the dialogue!) sound like something that was written originally in English? Be careful here—as any writer or translator knows, it can be excruciating to get that very last word right, and such subtleties of word choice will frequently separate the very good from the good. Reading Jan Steyn’s excellent translation of French author Edouard Leve’s Suicide, the prose turns into poetry toward the very end, achieving a precision that is amazing. A single malformed noun or adjective would have stuck out.
Are the sentence rhythms consistent, is punctuation used well and consistently? In Katie Silver’s translation of Senselessness by Salvadorian Horacio Castellanos Moya, the shifting manic rhythms of the narrator’s monologue are essential parts of character development, and the punctuation is essential to keep it all organized and breathlessly flowing. If she were to suddenly have had a bout of several lazy pages, it would have been clear.
A couple of other things to watch for: translators’ notes can be useful in providing rubrics by which to measure success, but you should read them only after you have formed your opinions on a translation. Otherwise you risk being led to conclusions not your own.
Likewise, if you have the time and the inclination, interviews with the translators can help determine challenges overcome, contexts imported, and goals achieved. But they should be supplements to, not replacements for, actual thinking on your part.
A final word on how you write about a translation in a review: I know as well as anyone that review space is often limited, and you can hardly do justice to that 500-page national epic in 1,000 words, much less save a whole paragraph to talk about the translation. But please, do not disrespect the hard work of the translator you have just read with one of those pat-on-the-head adjectives: “so-and-so’s lucid, sparkling, fresh, estimable, crisp, fine, readable translation . . .” If you’re going to talk about the translation, tell us something by which we can know you have actually appreciated the work involved and thought about the fact that this book was originally written in a completely different language.
Enough talk. As I indicated in the introduction to this piece, it’s important that good critics publish well-written reviews of worthy translations. Think about this stuff, but don't overthink it. Get out there, write the reviews. Your criticism will slowly but surely get better. Translation will be the better for it.