A few weeks ago over at Necessary Fiction, I reviewed Seven Years, a novel by a Swiss novelist writing in German. In that review I tackle the content of the book, and only make a few passing comments about the style. I actually wanted to say more about the writing but couldn’t find my way into that discussion within the review, so I settled for leaving it out. This kind of compromise always leaves me a little unsettled, especially because Seven Years is a translation and I feel strongly about not overlooking that fact when considering a book.
Recently, Words Without Borders has published a series of essays on how to review translations. The latest is by Scott Esposito, the editor of The Quarterly Conversation, and it’s a good one. Esposito provides some thoughtful framework-style guidelines for looking at a translation and finding a way to evaluate it. There are about nine essays now for the whole series, and they are well worth a read for anyone interested in reading or reviewing literature in translation.
Now, where I come to this in relation to my Seven Years review is that I sorely wanted to be able to say something about the translation. And in my idealist little heart I figured that I would find a way…I am a translator, right? I am also a huge fan of literature in translation, right? I live in Switzerland, right? (Okay, Seven Years is set in Germany, actually, so never mind). But in the end, because I don’t read German, I simply did not feel comfortable approaching that aspect of the text.
The writing in the English version of Seven Years is unadorned and straightforward. The most interesting thing about it is that much of the dialogue comes indirectly, and even when it is direct, it isn’t set off from the rest of the text. So there are moments when you have to read a line twice to make sure who is speaking. Other than that, though, there isn’t much that stood out from Seven Years to raise my translator antennae…but maybe this is only because I don’t read German. Perhaps if I read German, I would have been able to see patterns in the translated English that could only come about because they were being created on top of German scaffolding. I see this with translations from the French and from Japanese, because certain phrasings and structures necessarily occur as the English grapples with the original.
You see my dilemma here. In my heart of hearts, I’d like to believe that someone unfamiliar with the original language can engage with aspects of the translation as suggested by these WWB articles, but I’m skeptical. And I get the sense that this great discussion on reviewing translation isn’t addressing this question head-on. (Except this piece by Jonathan Blitzer.) Is it possible to review fairly and thoroughly, emphasis on thoroughly, without knowledge of the original language? I want to think so, but I don’t think so. Examples? Anyone?
In the end, all I can say about Seven Years is that it is a translation, that an original text exists in German and that what I read was Michael Hofmann’s version of Peter Stamm. How that differs from someone else’s version of Peter Stamm I cannot say. And that frustrates me. I’d like to find a way through this problem.