Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

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.

11 Responses to “thoughts on reviewing translations”

  1. Amateur Reader

    Given any ordinary length limits, what can “thoroughly” mean? If you do your duty to the text in front of you, you’ve done a lot.

    Great critics have written great pieces on all sorts of books in languages they don’t read. James Wood does not read Russian, yet his writing on Chekhov is excellent. I’ll bet you can find more examples in almost any collection by a good critic.

    On the other hand, I have been startled by how much can be done with minimal knowledge of a language. Problem or opportunity?

  2. Michelle

    Couldn’t agree more on your ‘thoroughly’ comment.

    Otherwise I want to make a small distinction on another point…I don’t think it is impossible to review a book originally written in a language the reviewer doesn’t understand, but can the reviewer specifically address the quality of the translation? Can the reviewer talk about it as a translation, or does the reviewer simply pretend the translation doesn’t exist, and by that I mean the reviewer pretends that the translation IS the original? Does Wood talk about translation issues when he writes about Chekhov?

  3. Amateur Reader

    Wood, throughout The Irresponsible Self, for example, takes the texts as they are in English – no concern about the translation.

    I don’t think Wood is pretending the translation does not exist, but rather assuming that the translators are professionals working at a high level. They provide him with a good text he can get to work on.

    And, of course, Wood, in these pieces, was not “reviewing” as such.

    But, see his piece on Tolstoy, where he compares English translations, a solution not available for translations of not-so-old books.

    • Michelle

      Sure, the translators are all good, I think that goes without question. I guess I’m just interested in whether it is possible for ‘translation issues’ to come into the overall review. Not just treat the style of the writing, that’s already one thing, but I’m simply fascinated with the difficulties of translation and the compromises that translators make, so I’d love for that aspect of a translation to get into the review. How is the English version necessarily different from the original – that kind of thing. Not that this means a criticism of the translator’s work. Obviously, ideal world situation here, because hardly a single reviewer has the space to say more than “well-done”
      And thank you for the link!

  4. Lilian Nattel

    I think all you can do is what you just did–to be aware that this is a translation and to state who it is and the languages. I wish because of that I could read more languages that I do which is effectively just one and a slight enough smattering of a couple of others to compare translations only for my private thoughts.

    • Michelle

      I hear you on wanting to read in more languages…that is my greatest wish.

  5. litlove

    I know what you mean. When students come to me because English is their second language and they are having problems of self-expression, it helps no end if their native language is French or German because I understand how those languages work internally, and how they are fundamentally different to English at the most basic and the most sophisticated levels. I suppose when their language is completely other to me (any form of Chinese for instance), I rely on my knowledge of what my own language needs in order to be expressed eloquently, fluently and with native inflections. That’s about all I have for you! It is a tricky one.

    • Michelle

      Yes, quite tricky. At the moment I’m doing a lot of editing of scientific journal articles and most of the writers are not native English speakers. It is always easier to get to the root of the problem if they are francophone, at least I can see where some of the issues are coming from. Otherwise, it takes longer. Although I suppose it helps me in the long run if they aren’t francophone!

  6. Stefanie

    What an interesting question you raise. I can’t read in any language other than English and when I read something in translation I don’t feel qualified really to talk about the translation, not knowing where the original and the translation connect and how they reflect each other or not. Thanks for the heads up about the Words Without Borders articles. I will have to go take a look!

  7. Dorothy W.

    We’ve had lots of discussions in my book group about whether a book’s problems come down to the translation or not. It’s impossible to tell, sadly, since we don’t have the original there and can’t always read it anyway. But we still talk a lot about it! Your post made me wish I could read an essay by Hofmann, an afterward or something, maybe, explaining any particular problems he had or difficult choices he had to make. It would make it a lot easier to respond to the book itself, I think.

    • Amateur Reader

      I’ve mentioned this book to Michelle before, but I recommend it to you, too, Dorothy, if you’re at all involved in discussions about translation. It’s a collection of essays by translators (big names, Gregory Rabassa and so on) about how they do what they do:

      The Craft of Translation, eds. Biguenet & Schulte, U of Chicago Press, 1989.

      I’m sure there are other, comparable books. But this one will clear away a lot of chaff.

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