Today WWB concludes its series Close-Up: An Experiment in Reviewing Translation, in which Lily Meyer and Mona Kareem seek to develop and practice a translation-centric approach to reviewing works of international literature. In the conversation below, Meyer and Kareem talk with WWB about what they've learned over the course of the series and the steps their fellow critics can take to engage more effectively with books in translation. Read the most recent installment in the series here.
WWB: During your initial conversation in May, one of the hopes you expressed for this series, Mona, was to examine “the game of solutions that comes into sight [when we're talking about translation]—the courage to betray, to rewrite, to montage, as well as the confidence to dissect a text, to choose what points of strength and weakness to emphasize or treat.” I wonder how the two of you feel this played out, particularly in the context of the reviews you wrote of work translated from languages you did not know?
Lily Meyer (LM): For me, one of the highlights of this series was having freedom—and, in fact, editorial encouragement—to acknowledge that I am often speculating as to why a translator makes a given choice. I’d argue that the most honest way to review translation is to first admit that any translation problem has multiple solutions, then admit that I, as a critic, can’t possibly know what solution might or might not have worked best, and then assess as best as I can from there. I enjoyed getting to write from that honest vantage point.
Mona Kareem (MK): In the case of reviewing a book translated from a language I speak, it was possible to observe and enjoy the way a translation contributes and improvises in service of the text. Many translators find it controversial to consider translation an act of creative writing in itself, which is understandable because the processes differ, but I am led to believe yet again that a good translator is necessarily a good writer. The translator has to give the text a new life and is obligated to play the negotiator between two literary domains and their aesthetics without completely domesticating a text. That difficult balance is what makes a good translation.
When reviewing a book from a language I do not speak, I was able to enjoy the blurred lines between the text and its translation. I appreciate this merging between author and translator, how it organically sacrifices authorship and reorients us in the direction of the text. We tend to forget that a translation is necessarily a collaboration, often fixating instead on what type of hierarchy takes place within that collaboration and how we maintain such hierarchy.
WWB: We'd be curious to know, more generally, how the two of you feel about the series now that it's come to a close: What general principles, if any, have you come away with when it comes to improving the way we review translations? What do you feel you've learned from this experience, especially in terms of the possibilities of reviews to adequately engage with the translator and the various processes that converge within the act of translation?
LM: My biggest takeaway is one that emerges from my answer above, and that applies to nontranslated literature as well: it’s a good critical practice, I think, to be honest about what we don’t and can’t know. Translation foregrounds our inability to know a book’s full backstory or access its author’s complete intention, since we’re reading a mediated and interpreted version of the text; maybe what this means for critics is that reviewing translated books is an especially good opportunity to acknowledge the holes in our own analyses. I recognize the paradox here, but I think that admitting we don’t know everything makes what we do know more valid.
As far as adequately engaging with the translator, I think once you do it, it’s hard to look back. I think of it as adjusting my literary vision: I trained myself to see the translator working, and now I can’t not notice.
“Translators are expected to play the roles of inspectors.”
MK: To add to what Lily said, I think we can make something out of this unknowing. If we embrace it and consider it part of the text’s allure, and don’t give in entirely to the reader's expectation of us, we can leave the reading possibilities open. A translation review is, after all, a review—the problem has been in the way it’s been practiced in Western publishing, in limiting terms that measure a translation by its ability to be “natural” or “almost native.” One can see the faults with such an essentialist understanding.
I also noticed that there is some expectation of translators to offer a review in the manner of dissection. It echoes another essentialist and problematic belief that a translation functions as a dictionary. Translators are expected to play the roles of inspectors or, more appropriately in the US context, of policemen—to reveal faults and make reforms. Translators are not expected to speak of the politics of their practice or the literary travels they’re involved in; their commentaries are anticipated to be abrupt, or preferably silent, only offering the most necessary anecdotes if they must.
WWB: Except for rare cases where the translator herself is a celebrated figure, it's common to see reviews that treat a translation as something separate from the translator. I wonder if either of you feels that this series allowed you to better understand not just what makes a good translation but what makes a strong translator.
LM: Flexibility! All translators have a sense of style, but the ones I admire most are those who are able to retain their aesthetic principles while completely shifting voices for each new author or work they translate. (For a very clear example of this, read Sophie Hughes’s translations of Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season and Laia Jufresa’s Umami side by side.) In my review of María Fernanda Ampuero’s collection Cockfight, I wrote about how her translator, Frances Riddle, switched styles between stories in order to highlight different aspects of Ampuero’s prose. I was very impressed by that.
MK: I second what Lily said about the command, flexibility, and range that some translators enjoy. What matters to me as well is a translator who realizes the kind of commitment they make to a given author, how a collaboration might outlast a text and continue in other forms. I also admire and follow the example of translators who are invested in translating work that trespasses the borders of literary domains in both the source and target languages. For example, who says because you translate from French, that necessarily means you have to translate French authors? A translator who contemplates their overall work beyond single projects is able to strategically challenge the literary status quo in the language they translate into. They think of translation beyond representative terms and bring work that may be refreshing and transformative to its new domain.
WWB: Continuing the line of inquiry begun with the previous question: It's common to hear people speak of “the right translator” for a given project. This is largely accepted as a given within the publishing world. Did your experience during this series influence in any way your thoughts about this?
LM: Not in this series necessarily, but I have certainly read books that I wished were translated by somebody else! I wouldn’t say that’s a wrong-translator issue, though; more often, I have an aesthetic disagreement with the way a person translates and would have liked to see the work in somebody else’s hands.
MK: You will always read works that make you wish they had the right translators. Publishing translations is a chaotic and arbitrary business and is therefore unpredictable. Sometimes a specialist scholar translates a creative text and the result is only relevant to other specialists. We’ve also seen examples of a linguist collaborating with a poet to translate a text from a language the poet does not speak. Many modern translations into English were done in this manner, and I am surprised to see that this practice continues to this day. There are other examples I can give of what a “wrong translator” might mean. I personally feel it most when cultural experts translate literary texts as if they’re mere artifacts.
Lily Meyer is a writer, critic, and translator from Washington, D.C. Her work appears in the Atlantic, NPR Books, Public Books, the Sewanee Review, and more, and her translation of Claudia Ulloa Donoso’s Little Bird: Stories is forthcoming from Deep Vellum in 2021.
Mona Kareem is the author of three poetry collections, some of which were translated into nine languages. Her translations include the work of Ashraf Fayadh, Ra'ad Abdul Qadir, and Octavia Butler.