Now This Is How Translation Reviews Should Be Done

The Los Angeles Review of Books review of Landmarks is a case-study in how to do everything right with translation reviews, and I don’t just say that because reviewer Chip Rossetti give a big, fat rave to the latest volume of Two Lines.

No, I say it because the world of literary reviewing would look different if every reviewer of translations were empowered to give the kind of attention Rossetti does to the unique issues that come up when dealing with a translation. And not to mention—rarely are the translators so visible in a review of a translation.

Let’s just take a look at it piece by piece.

Number 1: Be upfront and clear about the unique challenges that come into play when reviewing a translation. Check.

I SHOULD ACKNOWLEDGE up front that reviewing translated fiction is always a tricky proposition, particularly if the reviewer hasn’t read the original text. Should the review be an assessment of the author’s text? If so, the reviewer has to take the translator’s word (as it were) that the English text she is reviewing has not done too much damage to the original. At best, a reviewer might feel confident discussing the plot, but be more hesitant about assessing a metaphor or commenting on the style. If there’s a startling juxtaposition of words on page 38, was the translator attempting to mimic a similar linguistic surprise in the original, or was he just getting carried away with his own cleverness? Without looking at the original, who can tell?

Number 2: Promote the translator and all the hard (and all-too-often unacknowledged) work he or she does. Check.

Scholars writing about translation often speak about the translator being “invisible” within the text, but all too often the translator is invisible elsewhere as well. I don’t mean simply that a translator doesn’t get credit on the title page or book jacket (although that has frequently been a point of contention for translators), but that the translator’s presence is often elided altogether, including in reviews. So it is heartening to see that Two Lines foregrounds this work by starting each selection with a brief note by its translator. In addition to providing helpful context about the author and the literary tradition in which he is working, the translator also addresses at least one thorny problem that emerged in the course of the translation. It’s a helpful reminder that every English word we are reading is the product of deliberate choices, painful compromises, and inspired workarounds.

Number 3: Discuss how the work of translation impacts the results that a reader gets to read. Check.

Tsvaeteva’s fellow Russian poet and contemporary, Daniil Kharms (1905-1942) is as well known for his short, absurdist prose pieces (or “incidences,” to use the title of a recent translation of them) as for his poetry. Here he is represented by two short poems, deftly rendered in English by Melinda Noack. Despite the difficulty she acknowledges in replicating the rhythm and meter of the original Russian, Noack translates Kharms’s “One Million” in a sing-song style: the image of marchers, their numbers growing unstoppably, takes on subversive dimensions in this seemingly naïve verse. (Unsurprisingly, Stalin’s regime did not look kindly on Kharms’s idiosyncratic poetic style and erratic personality, and he ended up dying in a psychiatric ward in Leningrad during that city’s long siege.) One could easily imagine this poem in the hands of Dr. Seuss: a political allegory for adults disguised as a children’s book.

Number 4: Discuss the unique challenges to working with translations. Check.

The challenges of translating poetry sometimes require unorthodox translation methods: in some of these pieces, the translator didn’t know the language of the original, but instead collaborated closely with the author on the translation. Jeffrey Yang, for example, worked with Uighur poet Ahmatjan Osman, now living in exile in Canada, on a translation of Osman’s long poem “Dwelling in the Warmth of Other Suns.” Osman writes poetry in both Uighur and Arabic, but since Yang knows neither Arabic nor Uighur, their collaboration worked by way of a “skeleton key in English” provided by the poet, which Yang would then forward back to the poet along with questions. As Yang puts it, “Let sympathetic readers judge.”

And it just goes on and on . . . I’ve really only scratched the surface of this review, so definitely go and have a look at the entire thing.

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