Tuesday, May 11, 2010

An an entirely separate genre, independent of poetry, fiction, or drama - Edith Grossman on How To Write about Translation

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.


  1. Hmmm . . . I'm sometimes guilty of violating rule #1. When reviewing ARC's and review copies, I mention the translator, but not always when reviewing my own books. I really do need to change that.

    #2 - I wouldn't even know how to "check for accuracy." I'm not even sure what she means by that. Does she expect reviewers to not ever critique a translator's work? If the translator really is an artist in their own right, then isn't that like an author insisting that no one should ever give them a negative review? If you're going to declare yourself an artist, then you should be prepared to take the critiquing and analyzing that goes along with it.

    #3 - I can understand her exasperation there. I try to avoid cliches in my reviews too (like "fast-paced" and "gripping"), although I'm not sure I always succeed. I know I've never said "seamless."

    Okay, that's all fair enough. But does she really expect an essay on translation with every review of a translated work? Much as I enjoy international literature, that's not happening.

  2. die geneigte LeserinMay 11, 2010 at 10:04 PM

    I think that point #2 is probably directed at the attempts to critique translation that in fact only examine individual words and phrases. It's annoying to see someone pick words out of an entire novel and criticize the whole translation, because on page 111, "ennuyé" is translated as "bored" instead of "annoyed."

    On the other hand, translators do make mistakes, and not just bad choices. Sometimes even someone who doesn't know the language of the original can spot a mistake, because it makes no sense or because it doesn't sound like English. It's perfectly reasonable to ask whether a translator has, say, introduced anachronisms, inappropriate idioms, or other errors. I suppose that Grossman would say that in that case, you're critiquing the translator's text. But it should be possible to discuss what is in the original and what is in the translation; and the translator isn't immune to criticism simply because she must have worked awfully hard.

  3. Wow, (2) is a bit ridiculous, and the remarks on xenophobia just offensive. I've read a lot of good things about this book, and I'm very interested in the subject, but I keep suspecting that a translator may just be too close to the subject to write something I actually want to read. It seems to be a rather emotional topic for people in general.

    I also find it frustrating to be scolded about not dealing more with translations because we are ignorant but then being told to treat translation as "an entirely separate genre." Um, a lot of the time I lean toward the latter mentally, which makes me feel incompetent to address it!

  4. Most of the (admittedly, relatively few) reviews I've seen on Grossman's book so far have been either of the ass-kissing variety and/or of the equally patronizing "Americans don't read enough books in translation" sort (yawn...), so I'm glad to see you bring up a couple of "coachable moments" with some of the translation queen's more debatable advice. That being said, I do find it comical when people commend a translation for being "able," "seamless," etc. moments after they've admitted that they have no facility in the original work's original language. How do they know that the translation's so "great" other than that it reads well? Sorry to say that while I'm interested in reading Grossman's book at some point soon, I'm getting the impression that it's a library loan sort of thing and not really a purchase thing. Cheap, I know, but that's what happens when translators claim they are ushering in a new genre independent of anything or anyone before them!

  5. Sounds like she gets a bit ranty. At least it is a really short book and not 500 pages of rant to wade through.

  6. Grossman's insistence on the artistry of translation reminds me of an undergraduate exercise I was asked to do, oh so long ago, in a Modern Poetry in English course. We were confronted with two sets of very different translations of poetry by, I think, Li Po: some or one by Ezra Pound and the others by Arthur Whaley (?). Whaley could actually read Chinese whereas Pound was using someone's English annotations on the poems. The question was about which translations best captured the "spirit" of the originals.

    Certainly, the Pound poems had more literary value...or something...but Whaley's were apparently more literally accurate. Of course, no one knew for sure, as we were all limited English speakers too. One could discuss the arrogance of it all, but I think maybe that hated word "seamless" may actually be at the heart of even Grossman's concerns: for aren't "good" translations judged by the majority of readers by how consciously unaware their translator allows them to remain about the original linguistic "other"? Is not the art in the translator's ability to make it all seem naturally English (or whatever translated language one is reading?). Does she get at this paradox at all?

  7. I have no problem with the assertion that there is a lot of xenophobia in America. I don't need a bumper sticker to demonstrate that.

    I'm fascinated by the idea of this book, although more for its "how translation is done" elements, as you addressed in your last post, than for advice on book reviewing. I do wish that I knew of more pieces on translation decisions by people qualified to write them - essentially Grossman's suggestion that translation be treated as its own art form, and reviewed as such - I'd find those reviews SUPER interesting, but am not really qualified to write them. Maybe some day I will be! I hope!

    Her point #2 makes me a little bit sad. Especially if she doesn't acknowledge the kind of analysis you're talking about - checking against the original or different translations in order to analyze translation DECISIONS. I mean, how are we supposed to be meaningful reviewers of translations if we don't do that?

  8. In my recent post on translations, I address the idea that translations sometimes shouldn't be seamless. If the style is rough or odd in the original language, we ought perhaps to see the seams in the translation. That said, I'm sure I write quite cliched reviews. Grossman should probably stay away from our site.

    The notion that any competent translator would never make a mistake in accuracy is complete nonsense. Competent translators have gaps in cultural, historical, and personal knowledge all the time, and in translation, context is *everything*.

  9. Thanks for the clarification, die geneigte Leserin. I agree with you!

  10. What good comments. What to do with them all?

    The art of translation vs mechanics of translation thing: Grossman thinks these things are separable; I don't. I don't think they're separable for fiction or poetry, either. On the other hand, Edgar Allan Poe spends a fair amount of his reviews of novels tearing up the novelist's grammar and so on. It's OK that those days are gone.

    Anyone - nicole, Emily - interested in the craft of translation and skeptical of this book must seek out The Craft of Translation - try the essay by Edward Seidensticker about translating Japanese. It's fantastic.

    Richard - exactly! Exactly. I've seen a lot of puffery around this book, and a lot of virtue-by-association. The Chad Post review I linked today is a fine exception, and is more useful than anything I have written.

    Jenny - yes, my least favorite translation review shortcut is "smooth." Since when was smoothness a virtue in literature? As Colleen says, we want a translation that is real English ("natural") but really the author, who might be quite weird.

    Emily - whether or not there's xenophobia, that's the conclusion. I don;t care about that. It's Grossman's method that's pathetic.

    And why aren't you qualified to write about translations? The only qualification is doing it.

  11. Hmm, I don't feel like I'm qualified to "review the art of translation" because I'm not sufficiently fluent in any language other than English to appreciate it fully. I can't properly evaluate how many nuances, etc., are lost or preserved. I know I like Anne Carson's Sappho better than any other translation I've found, for example, but I can't say whether it's closer to the original Greek or not, or whether Carson captures a certain quality of Sappho while another translator might capture a different one.

    That said, even my sorry little attempts to translate a sentence or two of French & Spanish here and there have given me a huge appreciation of just how MANY decisions and subjective calls go into the process. So, you know, I'm on my way. :-)

  12. Oh PS - thanks for the tip on the Seidensticker essay!

  13. I really hate people telling me how to "review." I don't consider what I write for the web to be reviews -- more personal reflections. And while I try to remember to mention who translated the books I read, I don't always, especially if there is only one English translation published and readily available!

    I don't really want to comment on the xenophobic thing that Grossman wrote. Except to say that it is sometimes harder to find international (non-English originally) fiction in bookstores and my library.

  14. Grossman's xenophobia argument, once I untangle the logic, seems to be that publishers are reluctant to publish translations because they perceive xenophobia among potential readers. If she can actually shame publishers into changing their mind, or libraries and bookstores into stocking more translated poetry and fiction, then good for her. I have my doubts about the efficacy of the argument.

    Rebecca, I agree with that other point, too. If there is only one translation, and you're not saying anything about what the translator does, insisting you mention her is just fussiness. I do try to be fussy on this point, but it's really to make sure I don't forget to mention the translator when it actually is relevant. Anyone interested can look it up, right?