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.