Edith Grossman’s exasperated advice for book reviewers:
1. Always mention the translator, even if “there is nothing [the reviewer] can say about the translated version.”
2. Do not bother checking for accuracy, “since any competent translator would already have made countless checks for accuracy before the books ever reached the publisher’s hands.”
3. Do not, ever, ever, ever, say that the book is “ably translated.” “Seamless” is also bad.
I’m basically summarizing pp. 29-31 of Grossman’s Why Translation Matters. My response:
1. Check. I always mention the translator, even if I know nothing about him. Or at least, I always intend to mention the translator.
2. Ha ha ha ha ha! That’s ridiculous. How do I know that the translator is competent? If the translator is Edith Grossman (or a long list of others), then yes, I know. But what if I am checking not the translator’s accuracy, which Grossman insists, correctly, is close to but not quite the point of translation, but her decisions? When I spot-checked Pevear and Volokhonsky’s The Brothers Karamazov against Constance Garnett’s, I was startled to see how often the two versions were not only similar but word-for-word identical. Similar passages covered perhaps 90 percent of the novel. But that last 10 percent, that’s where the action is, that’s the difference between a mediocre translation and a good one.
3. Check! Assuming the blogger search function worked, anyway. Avoid these words which have become reviewer clichés. That’s my reason, not Grossman’s.
Now excuse me while I congratulate myself for being a model reviewer of books in translation.
Later in Why Translation Matters, Grossman goes after the reviewers again. Reviewers dismiss or ignore translations because they are ignorant – “they simply do not know what to make of them [translations], in theory or actuality” (47). Also, people in America, and publishers in England, are essentially xenophobic,* and The Atlantic magazine is provincial, and most reviewers are inept (all from the gleefully spiteful p. 51).
So say that you, perhaps a book blogger, want to write eptly about a translated book? What does Grossman suggest you do? First, see points #1-3 above. Second (p. 48), be like James Wood, who in his 2007 review of Anna Karenina spent a lot of space discussing How Translation Is Done. The reason he did this is, of course, because he hardly ever writes about translated fiction anymore. Writing a general essay about translation every time one reviews a translation would be absurd.
Third, treat translation is an “entirely separate genre, independent of poetry, fiction, or drama” (47). Dismiss your outdated Romantic attachment to authenticity. The translator is a creative artist in her own right.
Yes, but. I want a second opinion on this. I’ve probably read more words translated by Donald Frame (Montaigne, Rabelais, Molière, Prévost) than by anyone. What does he think?
The only kind of translation I want to talk about is what I call “free literary translation,” or translation of literature chosen freely by the translator for this purpose. This is the only kind I have much interest or knowledge of, and I think it is an art, though a very modest minor one, since it requires constant choice by the translator among the author’s values and devices as he seeks to recapture them in his own language and finds he can rarely if ever recapture them at all. Clearly it belongs far below good literary creation, and below good literary analysis, but I think it demands much of the same sensitivity shared by many booklovers whose gifts for good creation or analysis may be modest or non-existent.**
Modest is right! He may undersell himself, but my sympathies are closer to Frame’s. Turn to Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote, an extreme but useful case. What is the greatest achievement of that novel? Is it linguistic – specific turns of phrase or expansions of the Spanish language? Or is it the creation of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, characters who have managed the rare feat of detaching themselves from their own novel? I'm not supposed to give the translator credit for Don Quixote fighting the windmill, am I?
I don’t know what Grossman actually wants me to do with this idea. Strike “ably.” got it. My own advice, and I’m entering into the spirit of Grossman’s argument here, is do whatever I do.
Note that none of this has anything to do with Why Translation Matters. Grossman packs a lot into this small book.
* The evidence for the “high degree of xenophobia rampant in our country” is a single gag bumper sticker, which “I am sure many of you have heard about and some may even have seen” (42). Whatever else Grossman’s book is, it is bad social science.
** “Pleasures and Problems of Translation,” The Craft of Translation, eds. John Biguenet and Rainer Schulte, University of Chicago Press, 1989, p. 70.