A note on reviewing translation

Series 3 No. 4 - Between the Languages

Without due care, this can sometimes degenerate into a critical beauty pageant, lining up several variants of a few lines or even a few words like competing contestants, as if somewhere in the ether, a definitive, monolithic version awaits discovery

What are we doing when we review a translation? Are we judging the original source text? Or its translated version? Or perhaps the methodology used by the translator? And how are we qualified to speak, let alone to judge? Unfortunately many reviewers in the mainstream literary pages seem quite happy to side-step such issues, treating a translation as if it were the original, often barely noticing the presence of the translator, let alone acknowledging it. Even when a translation is accredited, reviews can still be inadequate; reviewers who have almost certainly never come across a word of Urdu or Polish or Flemish – and probably wouldn’t know it if they did – nevertheless feel quite free to pronounce a translation ‘jarring’ or to pounce on a single word as ‘infelicitous’. Then there are those with some knowledge of the source language but no real experience of literary translation beyond a prejudice that it is an impossible task and therefore almost always a failure.

But reviews written within the translation world can sometimes be as problematic as those from without. Often there is the same confusion about what the task in hand might represent. Those with a profound knowledge of the original can be tempted to spend their allotted word allowance on a discussion of its merits or shortcomings at the expense of the translation’s own qualities. Then there is the methodology of the review itself. Some reviewers, for instance, adopt a soap-box approach, seizing the opportunity to champion or chastise a particular school of translation theory – faithful versus free, perhaps - with the work at hand often in danger of  becoming a casualty of  the crossfire.

Similarly, a comparative approach is common, examining other, different versions alongside the translation at hand –  a useful tool, no doubt. Yet without due care, this can sometimes degenerate into a critical beauty pageant, lining up several variants of a few lines or even a few words like competing contestants, as  if somewhere in the ether, a definitive, monolithic version awaits discovery (less modest  reviewers even put forward their own as answer) and once found the search is over. Yet, as the model of classical translation teaches, what seems right in one precise moment in time might not necessarily seem right in the next; over the centuries what becomes important is not how much better – or worse ¬-  one translation conveys the original than any other, but what it teaches about the circumstances of that text’s transmission, its afterlife (for how is it ever possible to decide between, say, Jonson or Dryden?).  

This begs a further question: do you need to know the original source language in order to review a translation? Clearly a linguist’s eye can alert the reader to the nuances of the text, discussing the various ways in which the translator has approached them. And yet, while obviously a welcome approach, this emphasis on the linguistic can occasionally be at the expense of the literary; of an understanding and sympathy of  the translation per se, as a new piece of literature in its target culture. After all, translations are written primarily for those with no access to the source language and amongst all the detailed discussions of altered word order or slight variation of line length, it is important to remember this. Sometimes an intuitive, informed reader with a good working knowledge of the field, if not the branch, can see the bigger picture more clearly than those overwhelmed by the minutiae.

Nevertheless, there are, of course, many talented critical writers in our profession, a good deal of whom regularly write for this journal. So what should we expect from a translation review? My aim in these pages is to publish reviews which chime with the ethos of this new series of the journal: to be all encompassing, all embracing. To be incisive and critical, of course, but also compassionate. For this we need first of all an understanding of the process of translation, of the many paths that may or may not be taken along that hard road from original to version, all different, all equal. An understanding that translation, like all literary endeavours, revolves around the act of choice – and that such choices are not necessarily compromises, as often assumed, but informed judgements, both technical and creative, made after careful consideration. An awareness that the choices we make today might not necessarily be the same as those we make tomorrow; that a version might always be different, other. Add to that a creative, intelligent and above all sympathetic appreciation of the translator’s art. For translation is about courage; about facing up to the impossibility of a task and yet still finding ways to accomplish it, of somehow squaring the circle. Above all, though,  reviewers need to be able to write. Good reviews tell us not only something of the book – will I like it? do I want to buy it? – but also increase our understanding of art, and therefore of life.

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