Reviewing Translations

Martin Boyd

Why Translation MattersEdith Grossman, the English translator of many of the works of Gabriel García Márquez and author of the book Why Translation Matters, an examination of the low profile of translation in the English-speaking world, remarks that in book reviews of translated works, “most critics assiduously ignore the fact that they are reviewing a translation. If they do refer to the translation, they usually dismiss it with a phrase like ‘ably translated by’.” (qtd. in Salisbury).

This invisibility of the translator in book reviews is of course something that the translation scholar Laurence Venuti has also commented on at length in his landmark text The Translator’s Invisibility, and it is supported by Jeremy Munday’s case study of reviews of Grossman’s translation of García Márquez’s short story collection, Strange Pilgrims, in which he notes that “the book is almost overlooked as a work of translation” (Munday, Introducing Translation Studies 158). And it has certainly been my experience with the reviews I’ve read of translated texts; the reviewer approaches the translation as if it were the original text, commenting on the author’s skillful use of language, while overlooking the translator’s role in the reconstruction of that language apart from a perfunctory assessment usually limited to an adverb like “ably”, “eloquently” or “fluently”, if mentioning it at all. Indeed, this is an approach that is effectively reinforced in university-level literary studies programs in the English-speaking world, as students are often called upon to provide detailed analyses of classic literary works by authors as diverse as Kakfa and Camus, Borges and Balzac, always with reference to the English translation, always treating that translation as if it were the exclusive work of the original author, and certainly never being expected to take into account the changes that a translator’s invisible hand might have introduced.

Nautical ChartSome reviewers do manage to rise above this careless tendency, and give the translator’s work with more attention than an empty adverb. However, in all too many cases these exceptions to the general rule of pretending the translator doesn’t exist consist in criticizing the translator for failing to remain sufficiently invisible. Take for example, a reader review of Margaret Sayers Peden’s translation of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Nautical Chart, published by Patrick Burnett in Amazon Books. Leaving aside the fact that he erroneously refers to Sayers Peden as a “new translator” (in fact, by the time she translated Pérez-Reverte’s novel in 2001 she was a seasoned veteran with more than 30 years’ experience and at least as many published translations to her credit), Burnett’s condemnation of her translation is nothing short of brutal, as he asserts that she “has a wooden ear, seemingly translating some sections as written (which makes them seem odd and flat to an English speaker), and others by trying to inject modern slang and make the book sound more contemporary.” It is clear from his review that Burnett himself did not have access to the original Spanish version of Pérez-Reverte’s novel, a fact that obviously calls his criticism into question. How does he know that this “odd and flat” quality is the work of the translator and not of the author? From what can be gleaned from his review, his criticism seems exclusively based on a comparison of Sayers Peden’s translation with Sonia Soto’s translations of Pérez-Reverte’s earlier novels. According to Burnett, Soto “helped ease [Pérez-Reverte’s other novels] The Club Dumas and The Flanders Panel into the American [i.e. U.S.] consciousness by imbuing these books with a fluid formality that seemed just right for the content.” At last, a detailed positive comment about a translator’s work! However, it’s hard to overlook the fact that underlying this praise is an implicit philosophy that the duty of the translator is to domesticate a foreign text so that its foreignness – and the translator – will not bother the reader with their irritating presence.

Indeed, Burnett’s review seems to support Venuti’s suggestion that translators only become visible to English-speaking readers when their work lacks the expected fluency in English that would maintain their invisibility. In his article “How to Read a Translation”, Venuti claims that reviewers have trained readers “to value translations with the utmost fluency, giving the illusory impression that we are reading the original”. This illusion is destroyed if we find in the translation “a bump on its surface” that exposes the presence of the translator, who is then condemned for breaking the spell and exposing the fact that we are reading a second-hand text.

In light of the above, it is tempting to suggest that perhaps the only people whose reviews of literary translations should be taken seriously are literary translators. Translators obviously have a greater awareness of what the translation process involves than a monolingual reviewer, and so would be more capable of distinguishing the contribution of the translator from that of the original author. Failing that, monolingual reviewers would do well to consider the five rules proposed by Venuti in the abovementioned article to assess a translation, and always remember that “a translation can never be identical to the foreign text or communicate it in some direct, untroubled manner.” In fact, what a translation communicates is “not so much the foreign text as the translator’s interpretation” of that text. Basing their assessment of the text on this understanding, reviewers would be better equipped to offer a useful review of a translated text.

14 thoughts on “Reviewing Translations

  1. I do agree that in reviews of translated works there is hardly any comment on the translator’s art. We need a separate branch of criticism for that. A critic who reviews a translation, must be well versed in both the languages. Unfortunately, there are very few who belong to this category. Most of the reviewers work on the content of the book safely forgetting that they are not dealing with original.
    I would like to make an allowance for the students for they are not expected to know the original and they are studying it for a degree. It is obvious they will dwell on the content only.
    The most important question for me is whether the translation should read like a translation(with bumps/head on collision) or read like the original. I stand for the latter.

  2. Thank you, Shobha. I agree with your suggestion that translated literature should be treated as a separate category in reviews, and handled by reviewers who have access to the source text as well. Or failing that, they should at least acknowledge that they do not have access to the source text and that any comments they may be making on the use of language in the text may be attributable to either the translator or the author. I also agree that a good translation shouldn’t contain uneven or awkward language, but I’d like to propose that a good translation could make the reader aware of its condition as a translation while still being finely crafted and smoothly written. Perhaps it all comes down to changing the popular perception that a translation is a “second hand” text; couldn’t we instead view it as an enhancement of the original text? A tribute to the source text that opens up a dialogue with it that could potentially be more enriching for readers than reading a strictly monolingual text? Just a few ideas, perhaps for a future article…

  3. Ooops, I think I may have been guilty of that phrase myself in the past: ‘eloquently or impeccably or beautifully translated by…’. But at least I mention the translator’s name, which so often is completely missing from any reviews. And yet when the translation isn’t good, everybody complains! What I like about this article is that you dissect just what do we mean by ‘good’: something familiar to us, fluency in our language?

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  5. Thank you Martin for your response. The essentially contested concept, for me, is ‘good translation.’ Can we think of any objective criterion for judging a translated text?
    I enjoy reading a translated text only when I experience no bumps or awkwardness in expression. The reading experience and the reader’s psychology matter a lot. for me. The reader must feel he is having a smooth glide. The only area of bumps I can allow is vocabulary. The translator is sometimes compelled to use original words because they can never be translated. You are right that we wish to change the perspective that it is “second hand” text. It is exactly for this purpose that I feel that translation should not read like translation.
    Incidently, I have a work in English translation to my credit. I have also written a long note on the art of translation in the same. Would like to provide the details. The book has been distributed worldwide:
    Title – “Samidha” (2008)
    Published by Orient Longman( now Orient BlackSwan)
    Original in Marathi written by Sadhana Amte.
    If at all you could find time to browse I will be very happy to have your feedback because in India most of the readers’ response was it doesn’t read like a translation.
    With regards,
    Shobha Pawar
    Pune, India

  6. Thank you, Marina and Shobha for your comments. I agree that most readers want a “smooth glide” when reading a translation, but I wonder if there is a way to change this expectation so that translators don’t feel compelled to flatten any foreign “protrusions” in the text. Few readers of Shakespeare would ever expect such a smooth glide; on the contrary, we expect to be constantly challenged with language use and concepts that seem foreign to us (although in this case the “foreignness” is diachronic). Perhaps we need to cultivate a similar respect for translated literature that exists for classic works in English: far from smooth, but certainly edifying.

  7. Thank you Martin for your comment. I can understand your point of view. If the translator is not compelled to flatten foreign “protrusions” the reader will have, perhaps, a rough ride and the translator will win by making the reader feel his(translator’s) presence felt. However, why will the reader take a rough ride? Why does one read? Certainly for pleasure or profit! Those who read for profit will read no matter whether it is a smooth glide or rough ride. This class of readers covers students and research scholars. But, those who read for pleasure are free to choose. This class comprises literature lovers. Enjoying a bumpy ride in the Universal Studio (I did once) is one thing and it does give pleasure. I wonder whether that would be true of reading experience.
    You are right that reading Shakespeare is not an easy thing. Even with the original text in English we have to be equipped with a well annotated text. I used to use Arden editions. What with translation? Marathi(my local language) translations of Shakespeare were reader-friendly; sans annotations, sans footnotes. Even the rhythms of language changed. By the way, rhythm is the most difficult thing to translate.
    Looking forward to your deliberations on this interesting topic for my enlightenment.

  8. Thank you, Shobha, for continuing this interesting discussion. Apart from pleasure or profit, I would add a third reason for reading literature – the reason I think many of the biggest literature lovers would hold as the most important of all. For want of a better term, the single word I would use to define this third reason is “edification”. There is nothing necessarily pleasurable nor profitable about being edified: it is often quite hard work and rarely brings any tangible benefits. I think in particular of the great novelist Chinua Achebe, who adopted a philosophy in his writing that readers should be challenged when they read a novel, just as he was when he tried to comprehend the very foreign worlds of Tolstoy and Joyce. Indeed, although it is not a translation in the normal sense, Achebe’s style in “Things Fall Apart” could offer a clue for how a translator could render a foreign text into English. Apart from introducing a range of Igbo words to the reader, the text has a rhythm and cadence that is notably foreign, and yet not at all “rough”, because it obeys its own internal logic. It is, effectively, an Igbo English. Could this be our task as literary translators? To invent a language variant that is a kind of Spanish English, or Marathi English? Food for thought…

  9. I am with you Martin in your observations on Chinua Achebe are concerned. I need to take a second look at “Things Fall Apart.” It reminds me of Conrad’s fiction. He too writes in English, but how different is the variety of English he writes! Now, whether or not Achebe and Conrad produced a different style of English because they were influenced by Igbo and Polish respectively is a question to be answered. Indian writers writing in English, or for that matter any non-native writing in English is bound to be influenced by L1. Could this be true of translation also? For translations into English from any language in the world, only an Englishman can tell how close or far we are from the native English. The translator works under double pressure. He aspires to sound like the native and invites the charge of cultural infidelity or submission to western imperialism. Those who try to use Indian English come under scathing criticism that what they write is substandard. I did face these problems when I translated “Samidha” into English and have recorded the same in my note on translation in the same book. i will be happy to know your views on this problem.
    Thank you very much for responding to my post. I eagerly wait for your response.

  10. Yes, Shobha, I think your comparison between Achebe and Conrad is very apt, and I would contend that their respective Igbo and Polish mother tongues did indeed have a huge effect on the brilliant originality of their prose styles. I would also argue that Indian authors like Vikram Seth or Arundhati Roy have revitalized the English language precisely because they can draw from India’s rich multilinguistic traditions to enrich their prose in English. The US/UK duopoly on “standard” English is in danger of atrophy because of the obsession with “correct” English (an obsession that certainly never bothered Shakespeare). If we can change the paradigm of language as a monolithic system to be imposed and view it instead as a living organism that we all are a part of, people will begin to understand what translated literature can do to breathe new life into it. It is certainly no accident that so much of the best English literature over the years has come from places far away from the Anglo- “metropolises”, where contact with other languages is shaping variants of English which, rather than “substandard”, we might well think of as “superstandard”. What do you think?

  11. Martin, your comment has made me think seriously. Well, I can’t say whether changing the paradigm of language as a monolithic system is desirable or not. Language is subject to evolution, I agree. However, the changes that occur where the users are native speakers/writers of that particular language are limited and may not be revolutionary. Consequently, the identity of the language is not threatened. I feel that every language has to have its identity. If we make allowance for the variants of English springing up from the world, as you argue, will it not threaten the identity of English? In fact, there will be no such language as English in the world. We will have only variants; Hinglish, Chinglish etc. We will have no right to say that we have translated something into English. Challenging the duopoly is a political issue. Globalization has already sharpened identities instead of merging them. Languages are dying or threatened. Our (preposturous) generosity towards language will have disastrous effects. Contact with another language is useful so long as it enriches the original. Would you say having variants is the enrichment of language? I have doubts and feel worried about impoverishment. I stand for identity. Call it politics if you want.
    Awaiting more from you.

  12. Shobha, English has undergone some major, even revolutionary changes over the centuries, even in its native England. Think of the transformation from Old to Middle English following the invasion of the French-speaking Normans. Many Anglo Saxons might have seen what was happening as the death of the language they knew, an assault on the “purity” of the language by foreign language speakers, but without it modern English would never have existed. Such linguistic changes are merely reflections of political changes, and as such I think it would be unrealistic to expect to arrest them (unless you fight the political changes that underlie them). The fracture of Vulgar Latin into Spanish, French, Italian, Catalan, etc., was the natural result of the collapse of the Roman Empire, and I don’t think any academy of native speakers fighting to maintain a single Latin linguistic “identity” would have made much difference in the face of that political reality. Similarly, the rise of variants such as Chinglish and Hinglish probably reflect the rising power of the communities where those variants are used. I agree that every language has an identity, but I don’t think it is ever monolithic, and English has never been so. Among native English speakers there are man variants (British, US, Canadian, West Indian, Australian, New Zealander, South African, etc.), and when their speakers stop bickering with each other over “correct” usages, they are constantly enriching one another (consider, as a simple example, the recent contribution to the global lexicon of the Australian English word “selfie”). I think this mutual enrichment is only threatened when one variant becomes hegemonic, which is why I see the rising status of newer variants like Hinglish and Chinglish as a good thing. It is, of course, highly likely that these variants will evolve apart and become mutually unintelligible (particularly once Anglo-American political power in the world subsides); when that happens, we’ll need more translators.

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