On Reviewing Translations

I’ve been thinking about book reviews of translated literature. This is a well-worn topic amongst translators–Words Without Borders has a nine-entry feature of translators discussing the matter, and I’ve been on a panel devoted to discussing the topic–but as I think about how I’d like my translations of Xi Chuan’s poetry in Notes on the Mosquito to be discussed, I notice some of my views changing a bit.

When I review translations I make a point to name the translators and discuss the quality of their work; when I review translations from a language I know, I make a point to compare the source and target texts, and when I don’t know the language in question I do what I can either to find someone who does know both languages or else to situate my comments within larger discussions of translation in general. I think this adheres to most of the points made in the WWB feature and adds some. And when I’m reviewing translations from Chinese literature, which for straightforward reasons is what accounts for most of my reviews, I do what I can do draw on my expertise in the subject and base my judgement on what I think will be useful of what I know of the source subject for the target reader. In other words, I want my review to help readers new to Chinese literature make sense of what they are reading.

That’s not all I want my reviews to do, of course: I also discuss questions of poetics and style in English, and how these not only relate to Chinese but how they interact with what’s available in English writing, as well. Yet as I think about the reviews I know are forthcoming of Notes on the Mosquito–which of course I’m very eager to see!–I notice that so far they are all by writers who know Chinese, who are themselves translators and / or scholars, and whom I expect will write reviews much like I do: they will contextualize Xi Chuan and his poetry within Chinese cultural history, and they will offer their expert judgments on my work as a translator.

I want more reviews of this kind, of course, not only for my work but for translated literature in general. But to some extent, the more reviews of this kind we have, the fewer other kinds of reviews we get: fewer reviews by readers who can judge translations more on the merits of what they do for the target reader than on how they represent the source culture. In addition, the more expert reviews we get, the higher we raise the bar for reviews of translation, which may end up meaning that translations receive even fewer reviews than they now have!

Recently, translation studies has tended to value the foreign, to claim that if translation is to be ethical it must consider the foreign as foreign rather than assimilate it into the dominant logic of mainstream American culture. To some degree this is true, but to some degree, treating the foreign as foreign buffers the foreign from making its inroads into mainstream American culture. These are not complete opposites, of course; when my friends at Montevidayo discuss foreignizing translations, they usually do so with an eye and ear to how foreignization performs within the context of American poetry, rather than in how it represents the source text as such. Nevertheless, the fewer non-expert reviews of translated literature we have, the less time we’re able to spend considering–or enacting–the influence of translation on contemporary literature in English. And imagine where literature in English would be if it had never been influenced by the foreign.

In some ways this relates to a discussion I brought up before on this blog, when I quoted Michele Hutchison on “world literature” and whether Ron Silliman can “get away with [work that is playful and incomprehensible] because he writes in English and refers to the dominant culture?” (speaking of Silliman, when he wrote about Gustaf Sobin’s translations of René Char and called Char an Objectivist, I remember people decrying his imposition of American poetic terms on non-American poetry; perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that Sobin’s translations present Char as an Objectivist, but I would like to see Silliman spend more time considering translation and translations, not less). I have had enough discussions with Chinese poets about contemporary American poetry, full of discussions of how it has influenced and impacted their work, to wonder when conversations with American poets would show the same awareness of Chinese poetry. If we do not allow translation to influence American literature, then we are insisting on the international dominance of American literature, not on the ethical representation of the foreign within English writing.

At any event, I look forward to reviews of Notes on the Mosquito that discuss Xi Chuan’s potential impact on American writing at least as much as I look forward to reviews that discuss the context of China today and how it has produced the poetry I have translated.

11 thoughts on “On Reviewing Translations

  1. Interesting post! It can be very hard to review a translation and, as you point out, it’s best to know the source language to really address not just the work itself, but its translation into the target language. That happens all too rarely, but hopefully this discussion will contribute to a change!

  2. Interesting distinction you’ve drawn between “expert reviews” and those “by readers who can judge translations more on the merits of what they do for the target reader than on how they represent the source culture.” In an article I wrote some years ago (“Reviewing Translated Literature – Through A Glass Darkly?”, ATA Chronicle, XXXIV:8, August 2005, pp. 29-35) I focused on reviews intended for the ordinary reader, considered in three major categories that I called translation-blind, translation-aware, and translation-sensitive.

    • I’d like to read that article. I’ll look for it. I certainly think all reviews can be translation-aware and translation-sensitive, as I understand these terms (I’m sure you define them in your piece), but that doesn’t necessarily require that the reviewer know the source language. Likewise, I’m sure we can all think of reviews where the reviewer may know the source language, but still be translation-blind!


    • Anne, I’m not sure if we’ve ever met at ALTA, but I wanted to jump in and let you know that I’ve taught your essay several times with much success! Thanks to you and Lucas for continuing this always pressing conversation.

  3. Excellent post. I’m not a follower of reviews of translation, or poetry translation, for that matter, but I’m very interested in how translations (and views on translation) interact with the circulation of cultural products. It could be interesting to contrast this situation with foreign film reviews, where the same kind of deep contextualization for audiences/readers is not really required — it’s assumed a film can be judged on its own merit and still have some kind of transformative impact (and continued circulation) in the receiving culture. Does the difference lie in the difference between poetry and film? Proprietary grip over code/text vs. (assumed) universality of image? If you haven’t already, you may want to check out Brian Lennon’s “In Babel’s Shadow” (U. of Minnesota Press). It delves into the matter of translation as guarantor/inhibitor of literary circulation — relevant to the issues you’re bringing up here. Cheers.

  4. Speaking of judging a work on its own merit… At an ALTA Conference several years ago, Steven Wasserman, editor of the LA Times Book Review at the time, said that his “bias” was to read and experience a translated work like any other work written originally in English, because that’s how the reader will experience it. He felt it was not his job to compare it with the original or grapple with what he called “the midwifery or alchemy” of how the work came about.

  5. Great post. However, I have to agree with Anne’s LA Times reviewer: in most cases, a translated work is a new work, born from the source material but living a new life in a new language in a new culture. I’m a little annoyed at the idea of a reviewer substituting his or her own “expertise” for that of the translator: why should an “expert” reviewer’s narrow focus on the translation per se be more valid that the judgment of the translator, who surely thought of and rejected every alternative the “expert” reviewer might care to point out? There are also so many factors that go into the publication of a translation: the translation itself, changes the author may make to the translation, changes the developmental editor may make to the translation, copy editing, etc. ad nauseam. By the time a translation makes it to print, to discuss the translator by name as though he or she were solely responsible for the product is, frankly, naive. In many cases, translators don’t even get final say on what is published (and even when a contract says they should, publishers often make changes without the translator’s knowledge or consent). In many cases, authors will rewrite passages or chapters in response to editorial input, as well.

    Economics play a huge role in the approach taken to a translation, as well, and reviewers should be mindful of this. For instance, the translation of pulp fiction or a murder mystery is generally approached quite differently than is the translation of canonical literature; the former is primarily a commercial enterprise, while the latter is an academic exercise. There is room for both. If there is one area in which translation studies really fails it is exploring how the economics of the publishing industry impacts translations, both for the better and for the worse.

    Recently, the Modern Language Association (MLA) published some guidelines for reviewers of translations, and I found these stated criteria extremely balanced, insightful, and well-informed (http://www.mla.org/ec_guidelines_translation). In particular, I like this point made at the end:

    “Reviewers who read both the source language and the target language can address the complex question of the translation’s “faithfulness” to the source text. A good translation will contain few outright misreadings. Yet success or failure in translation ultimately depends not so much on the literal transposition of discrete meanings as on an interpretation of the myriad traits and dimensions of the source text. Reviewers need to recognize that readability and argumentative comparability at the level of large-scale discursive structures (paragraphs, chapters, entire books) are legitimate objectives that may create the appearance of a departure at the level of words and sentences. Translators use a wide variety of techniques to compensate for structural differences between languages and to minimize loss: expansion, condensation, displacement, borrowing, exegesis, generalizing, particularizing, transposition, and so on. An apparent error or deviation may turn out to be an apt rendering of a provocative or anomalous passage in the source text; just as significantly, it may be an artifact of the translator’s decision to rephrase, reorder, condense, or expand in order to convey meaning more clearly or more idiomatically in the target language.”

    If more reviewers really read, considered, and digested this particular point by the MLA, the quality of transaltion reviews (whether “expert” or “lay”) would improve dramatically.

    • In part I agree with Wasserman’s reported notion that all that needs to go into the review is a consideration of how it reads in the target language, but I’m not convinced that Wasserman would agree with the MLA’s recommendations. Wasserman may have meant that the translation doesn’t need to be discussed at all, and that reviews can talk about Proust’s writing, for instance, without ever acknowledging that the English reader gets to Proust only via Moncrieff or Enright or Davis; this is certainly a problem in the other direction.

      The MLA advice is very good at pointing out that an “expert reviewer” needs to be more than an expert nit-picker and criticizer of “howlers,” but in answer to your question, “why should an ‘expert’ reviewer’s narrow focus on the translation per se be more valid that the judgment of the translator, who surely thought of and rejected every alternative the ‘expert’ reviewer might care to point out?” I’ve reviewed translations where it was clear that the translator certainly had not thought of and rejected enough alternatives, and in my review I’ve pointed that out. You can find links to those reviews on this blog. If we don’t hold translators to a high standard, we don’t get good translations. The hard part is understanding what a good translation is, and how to spot it and what it does whether we know the source language and culture or not.

  6. Do you have an introduction or translator’s note in which you talk about issues relating to the translation itself and the points you bring up here (and making your case about how Xi Chuan’s poetry in translation speaks to contemporary American poetry?) I’ve noticed that ND often gives translators this space. Sometimes reviewers pick up on this.

    • Very good and relevant question. I do indeed have a translator’s introduction, but it offers more information on Xi Chuan’s background and the context of his writing in Chinese than on how it speaks to contemporary American or international poetry (though of course there’s some of that there, too). In fact, I imagine it’s exactly because I have an introduction that discusses Xi Chuan’s Chinese context that I hope reviews can spend more time talking about how the translation will fit into the American poetry landscape!


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