Tips for Reviewers: The Politics of Reviewing Translations

The theme of this year’s American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference was politics and translation, and Aviya Kushner and I were thrilled to kick off the very first session of panels on November 13 with “An Insider’s Look at the Politics of Reviewing Translations.” The standing-room-only attendance attested to the highly politicized nature of this topic. Translators (and their publishers) are desperate to have their work reviewed, and many, though not all, to be acknowledged in critical discussions of the books they make possible. Why do some important translations get reviewed, while others are critically ignored? How do reviewers evaluate translations? Must discussion of the translation itself always be included in a review? What is the place of the negative review, when translations receive so little coverage already? How can translators increase their chances of getting reviewed? We were fortunate to have a stellar group of panelists to speak to these questions from the perspectives of translator, publisher, reviewer, editor, and academic. Our “insiders” included:

My co-moderator, Aviya Kushner is a contributing editor for A Public Space and has also published many reviews of literature in translation. And, of course, I considered these issues from my own perspective as a reviewer and editor.

 

Only one of these questions has a relatively easy answer: Why don’t some translations get reviewed? As Eric Lorberer explained, and I can personally attest, the main reason is a lack of qualified reviewers. Without interested and knowledgeable reviewers, there would be no reviews, and there are never enough reviewers to cover all of the literature worthy of discussion. In the case of translations, this is complicated by the fact that the reviewer must have knowledge of the original language and culture of the work in order to be able to really evaluate the translation within their review.

Why are translations often reviewed as if they were originally written in English? Because reviewers are often ill-equipped to evaluate the aspect of the translation. Even when they are, consulting the original text, especially in the case of prose, takes extra time and research that most reviewers do not have. (Props to Lucas Klein who says he always makes an effort to consult the original text of any book he reviews.) Furthermore, the aspect of translation doesn’t necessarily have a place in every review. While this is an integral part of the review coverage we provide at Reading in Translation, Minna Proctor commented that unless the language in English is particularly remarkable, she won’t necessarily mention the translator in reviews she writes. Within strict word count limits, there often isn’t enough room to adequately discuss both the original work itself and the translation. Regardless, a line-by-line comparison is rarely the best or most enlightening way to raise the reader’s awareness of translation. At worst, these types of comparisons can often lead to misunderstandings and ill-placed criticism from reviewers who mistakenly look for literal match-ups. Whether or not the translation figures into the review coverage, however, the translator should be named in the heading and citations. Unfortunately, this editorial standard is not followed in many major publications.

The question of the negative review—that is, a review that cannot recommend the book—is a political one, particularly in the case of translations, which receive so little coverage already. Panelists were divided on the question of whether negative reviews have a place, but generally agreed that they were more interested in investigating the qualities that make a book succeed rather than those that make it fail. In any case, translators should not be blamed indiscriminately for awkward-sounding English, or other “flaws” that may in fact be present in the original text.

The translator’s invisibility is a pervasive political issue, when many mainstream review publications and major publishers do not recognize translators in publicity based on the common perception that American readers won’t want to read a translation. As long as translators are not—at a minimum—named in reviews, our work will continue to be invisible. As Scott Denham explained, this invisibility extends to academia as well, where works in translation are frequently taught in the humanities as if they were originally written in English. Translators, he says, are sometimes not even credited on syllabi, and faculty seem mystified about the criteria for selecting which translation of The Odyssey (for example) to teach. Invisibility in review coverage correlates to invisibility in academia, where translation publications are not considered in tenure deliberations at many universities. As Denham wisely commented, teaching works in translation as translations is important because it introduces ambiguity into scholarly interpretations. So, too, does reviewing translations as translations: true literary criticism that goes beyond plot summary or publicity copy opens up the possibilities of meaning in a text for the potential reader.

While there are no easy fixes for these problems, here are some takeaways from the discussion:

  • Know your allies: As Scott Esposito commented, reviewers with translation experience have an inherent sensitivity to the aspects of translation underlying the English text, and are more likely to acknowledge the translator than a reviewer who has no awareness of what goes into translating. That being said, keep in mind that reviewers can’t always control what’s done on the editorial end. Sometimes, even when a reviewer mentions a translator in their review, the publication might edit it out.
  • The bare minimum: Margaret Carson, who attended the panel and is a member of the PEN Translation Committee, asked the panelists to commit to, at a minimum, mentioning the translator’s name within the body of the review as well as the title. Including the translator’s name within the title of the review is important, especially on the web, since it’s indexed by search engines.
  • Eliminate “ably translated” from your reviewing toolbox. Statements like “ably translated” are meaningless, unless you’ve actually compared the translation against the original text. Conversely, without consulting the original text, you can’t blame awkwardness in the English on the translator.
  • In academia: Make sure you credit translators on your course syllabi. If you chair a department, do not accept syllabi without translators credited.
  • Support your publicist but don’t do their job: Translating reviews and publicity materials related to your book’s release in its original language can help your publisher to promote your translation. Provide these materials to your publicist, but don’t try to do their job. At best it’s annoying and at worst it undermines their ability to promote your work. Any context for the original work or your translation process will make a reviewer’s job easier. As I’ve written before, translators’ introductions are reviewing cheatsheets.
  • Focus on where you can make a difference: When a translator is not named in a review, it’s ultimately the reviewing venue’s responsibility. Writing letters to publications that don’t name translators as part of their editorial standard does make a difference, as do Twitter campaigns like #namethetranslator. “Shaming” reviewers who don’t name translators is misguided, since ultimately they cannot be held responsible for the editorial standards of the publications where they review.

As I continue to mull these issues and how we can improve the public perceptions of our industry, the question keeps replaying in my mind: if translation at its best is literary criticism, what does the literary critic owe the translator?

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2 comments

  1. When we review books by non-translators, we often comment on their other work. Why is it that reviewers of translations rarely comment on other translations by the same translator? This is an obvious thing one can do that does not require knowledge of any source (aka foreign language) text. We seem to be putting up a bar, which is relatively high, about knowing foreign languages well enough to evaluate how well the translation has served its source, when there is another bar, much lower, which just has to do with reading other translations in English.

    1. Excellent point, Russell! And more and more readers follow the work of particular translators these days, so this makes so much sense.

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Christiana Hills

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