Thinking About Book Reviews
Clarice Lispector is undoubtedly one of the great writers of the past century. Her recent rediscovery—sparked off by the reissuing of The Hour of the Star in Ben Moser’s new translation—is definitely merited, and will hopefully usher in a time in which any number of very deserving female authors from the not-very-distant past finally get their due. Writers like Nathalie Sarraute (the author who most came to mind as I was reading Lispector’s The Chandelier) or Mercè Rodoreda or Ann Quin or Dorothy Richardson or Elsa Morante. (I’m sure you can come up with twenty others.)
The most recent entry in Lispector-mania is The Chandelier, Lispector’s second novel, published in 1946, three years after Near to the Wild Heart, is a true literary event. It’s rare enough that an author of this magnitude and difficulty breaks into the widest circles of the literary establishment, and triply rare that the author in question has a never-before-translated novel right there waiting to be devoured by an already desirous audience.
This book is going to get so much coverage over the next few months. Which is why I really don’t feel bad taking some time to explore my personal reaction to reading this book—and think through some questions about reviewing translations—especially since I personallyhad a really hard time connecting to this novel.
The Chandelier by Clarice Lispector, translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards (New Directions)
I’m not sure exactly why I couldn’t ever really get into The Chandelier, but there it is. I spent a few weeks working my way through this, occasionally enraptured by the philosophical nature of the prose, frequently skimming to try and find the next plot point, often feeling more obliged to pick this up than excited to get back into it—all of which is probably user error. I generally read too fast. There are so many books stacked up, so many self-imposed reading goals. And time is a premium. Usually that’s not a huge deal—I live in a town whose two sources of pride are a garbage plate and a grocery story, so there aren’t a lot of distractions—but I just couldn’t find the right reading pace for this book.
Beyond that—and again, this is on me, for being a bit of a dummy—I just couldn’t find the right hooks to get into this. I got the general point of it, but to me it read like a much less elegant version of one of Sarraute’s brilliant novels. Over the multiple weeks of reading this, I texted a half-dozen literary friends to see if they had read it and maybe had that magic insight that would make it all fall into place and get me hooked. But, alas.1
This got me thinking about reviews, and what their role can/should be. Nothing that comes after this statement is all that revolutionary, or even necessarily connected to this book. But trying to envision the perfect review for The Chandelier led to a lot of circular arguments about reviews in general. I’m not going to go over all of them right now—this is probably the first of several posts over the next few months about reviewing translations—but let’s see where this all goes. So I’m just going to make some general statements and then argue with myself for a bit.
A Review Should Hype a Book
I think this is a commonly held belief—especially when it comes to reviews of translated books. There are so few opportunities for most of these titles to get any ink-time, so what’s the point in writing about a subpar book that you don’t really like? These opportunities should be maximized by drawing attention to wonderful books that are masterfully translated. If reviews are supposed to bring readers to particular books, shouldn’t we use this opportunity to direct the curious to the masterpieces out there?
Furthermore, what is gained—for the translation profession as a whole—by shitting on a translated title? Just don’t write/tweet/say anything! There are so many good books out there deserving of attention, not to mention all the great translators doing amazing work—so just write about those.
But is that really what criticism is? How can the translation profession really improve if these books aren’t ever criticized? Translators, not to mention readers of international fiction, can gain a lot from seeing what works, what doesn’t work, witnessing the mind of a sharp reader in action. We expect critics to actually break down books originally written in English and examine what works and what doesn’t, thus saying something about art & the world & writing, and we should expect the same treatment for a book that happens to be originally written in another language. There are truths about art and life that can be pulled from this, especially if we give it a close, critical reading.
There’s a fundamental difference though: most translations have been critically analyzed in their original language and have gone through an extensive vetting process to get here. It’s a bit suspect to suddenly be taking down a translated book that was critically acclaimed in its home country. What are you criticizing? The form and writing of the book itself? Based on what? American standards? Biases that are built out of reading mostly American novels with their American styles? If the ending of a Chinese novel isn’t Hollywood enough, then it should ripped apart? Or are you actually criticizing the translation and just not on sure enough footing to say so?
One Should Never Criticize Individual Word Choices in a Translation
So much of so-called “translation criticism” is just nitpicking translations with little to no understanding of the original. Actually, it’s even worse than that. There are two types of people who criticize translations: those who know the original language and get all bent up about the translator using “mom” instead of “mama” or “dove” instead of “pigeon,” and there are those critics who don’t know the original language, but still attribute any and every quirk of the prose to the translator as some sort of “mistake.” It’s another example in which translation criticism is basically taking an international text, comparing it to American-centric literary values, and declaring it inferior. And the “critic” never takes into consideration all the thought about possible choices that the translator went through with nearly every word—the translator, who’s not even given an opportunity to explain—-
Hold the fuck up! We’ll get to the last part of that soon. But first off: sometimes individual word choices are valid examples of how a text works or doesn’t. And NOT just for translations. Remember the criticism of Uncle Charles “reposing” to the outhouse in Joyce? The example that Hugh Kenner turned around into an example of Joyce’s genius and the way he “gave over” that word to Uncle Charles, saying something about his particular perspective on how he sees himself? Individual words are important in constructing characters and a legit critic will apply the same sort of standards to books written in English or in any other language. If a character is using words in dialogue that he would NEVER EVER USE then there’s a problem—no matter who wrote it. Again, a good critic shows how these sorts of choices are building blocks to great literature.
A Review Should Always Talk about the Translation
Fine, except that a translator doesn’t have the same leeway as a writer working in English. We’re bound by the original text and if we don’t reproduce it, we’ll be savaged—by you, by an academic, by a fellow translator—for not being “faithful” enough. It’s unfair to hold us to the same standards, since we’re under a different set of constraints.
I figured you were a translator, given your general defensiveness.
I’m not sure exactly what a critic is supposed to do. On the one hand, we’re supposed to review as many translations as possible to help readers break out of their provincialism, but we’re not supposed to apply the same criteria to these books as those originally written in English. If we criticize the words on the page, the translation, I suppose, then we’re being unfair to translators like Gregory Rabassa’s “Professor Horrendo”; if we don’t write about the translation, then we’ll get a letter from PEN about how we need to “name the translator”; and if we say the translation “seems pretty competent,” then we’re just dumb assholes who aren’t giving credit and don’t know how to review translations. What is it that you want, exactly?
To be treated as an equal to the author. You wouldn’t be reading this book at all if it weren’t for us. (Triply so if it’s from a language that’s not Spanish or French.) The amount of time put into the creation of this book is astonishing, not to mention the sheer amount of critical and creative thought. It’s not like a translator is the same as a goddamn app—we’re artists and deserve to be included in the conversation about the art works that we create. That’s not too much to ask. Sure, it takes you a bit of extra work to engage with the book on two levels—as a book and as a translation—but that’s just the sort of critical thinking that you’re good at, right?
What’s a Review Good For?
But wait. If the point of reviewing a translation is to get general readers to read a great book, do we really want to get into all this technical shit?
Technical SKILL then. Deep dives into translation theory and how to reproduce a language’s syntax in English are 100% guarantees of boring the piss out of a general reader. A solid quarter of Americans didn’t read a book last year. Check that. A quarter of Americans are PROUD they didn’t read a book last year. And half of the rest of them read one book and it was either their high school girlfriend’s self published 99 cent Amazon ebook of dinosaur porn or whatever piece of mediocrity was part of their “One City, One Book!” environment. People don’t give fucks about the intricacies of translation—unless you’re a translator, and the bookselling world shouldn’t be all about YOU. There are, what?, 20,000 readers of literary fiction out there? And, let’s be honest, the translations we’re talking about are works of literature, not spy novels or romances or whatever. Of those 20,000 readers, probably 500 or so read actual book reviews. If you want these reviews to be promotional tools for international literature, we need to up that number. And to up that number, we have to focus on what readers want: plot descriptions, information about what makes a book unique, why it’s worth reading and what about it might not work for everyone. The SAME reasons why they come to a book (or don’t) when it’s written in English. Why should they treat translations as something exotic and more complicated? Doesn’t that defeat your very point?
There must be a middle ground.
One of the things I’ve encountered are book review editors shying away from reviewing translations because they don’t have a reviewer on hand who’s read the original. Or can! But even if they can, do you understand our deadlines? And that they’re REAL deadlines? And Christ, none of us get paid. Yeah, I know YOU’RE underpaid, but $500 for a 500 word review? Can you imagine asking someone to read a novel in the translation AND the original for $500? AND write a review AND have it in by next Saturday? We’re all doing the best we can.
That’s exactly the point! Why are you criticizing us when we’re also doing “the best we can”? We’re slaving away—also for no money—riddled with self-doubt and the fear that critics like you will blow apart all of our work over a single word? A word we chose because it was the best of five bad options? We’re just as talented of wordsmiths as you are, but criticizing our work is somehow just, but criticizing a critic is a bad look and sour grapes and whatever.
How Small Is This World
Here’s my big problem: I’m paid next to nothing to talk about books. Books! Books barely matter anymore to anyone. It’s a thankless project that doesn’t earn money, can maybe find you love (if you love books, like, legitimately), and gets no respect. I’ve said it before and will again that book people are only in it to make it to the end. Just get by. Win and advance. Whatever your inspirational of choice might be. So I do my job. I read books that are by dumb young Brooklyn kids about trust fund living and college aspirations. These books are fucking terrible. I read experimental jet set trash from the intellectuals who feel threatened by the idea that most everyone would rather be playing Netflix and chill. (Fuck YOUR mixed metaphors.) I read translations that are basically just boring books and some that are poorly written—in both languages—and some that are great. Most of the time I just feel manipulated by rich people, but that’s America circa 2018. Yet the things I write about translations—which I think are fun and from the perspective of an informed reader who is just READING the books—are the ones that lead into a tiny wormhole filled with translators saying translator things about how translations translate and translations should be translation translate. It’s the most unreal world. So touchy! American authors are less concerned about reviews because they know no one gives a FUCK about reviews. But translators only want reviews to exist in a world that’s there just to please them.
You’re such a self-involved old white man prick. Wanting to be part of the conversation, instead of judged from on high by someone with questionable taste and knowledge is completely batshit insane. You make all these comments about the tenuous state of books and translation, but, hey, you’re a fat white dude writing reviews in the Age of Yelp. You know who doesn’t matter? You. Reader responses will always exist, but your livelihood comes from newspapers. Newspapers. Seriously. We’re creating something and you’re sitting there blogging. Eat shit. The future of bookselling or readership or whatever you think you understand doesn’t need you at all.
You know who sucks? Publishers.
OMG. They are the worst.
It’s all just a racket for their benefit. A game in which we pretend our lives have meaning so that they can make more money.
I think my editor got paid twice my salary to fix three comma splices. Whereas I translated a goddamn book. Commas! We’re talking about commas.
Have you ever looked into how much money the big publishers make? The book industry has to be profitable for some people, right? But how does that work? And who is screwing us?
_Look. I’m not a journalist, but . . . _
1 I ended up relying on this review from Music & Literature. It’s a really smart piece that will appeal to those new to Lispector and seasoned Lispector readers. Here are the three quotes I found most useful and intriguing:
The power of Lispector’s heavily textured sentences and Virginia’s unbridled introspections and contemplations of who she wants to be cannot offset the fact that this three-hundred-page book would have benefited from being as economically edited as her more acclaimed works. Virginia’s monotonous ruminations often blur together; her thoughts and struggles can be profound and beautiful, but so many pages of the same rolling waves of dreamy sentences can sap even the hardiest reader’s will to dig into the work. This novel is perfect for those who already revere Lispector and want a further understanding of where her thoughts and aesthetic went after Near to the Wild Heart.
Benjamin Moser and Magdalena Edwards’ shrewd, supple translation of The Chandelier showcases the brilliance of Lispector’s singular style and astutely unfurls the longer, more complex sentences that the author had come to use as a fundamental unit of composition.
Coming out, as it does, during Lispector’s many travels with her husband, The Chandelier deals with a larger alienation and disconnect not only from society, but from other people, and even from oneself. Virginia’s monologues and internal struggles often feel more akin to the philosophical wrangling of a person struggling for the right language to wring herself out. Near the end of the book’s first part, Virginia laments how “Suddenly the words from which she lived in childhood seemed to have run out and she couldn’t find any others” as well as how words define her deepening relationship with her lover Vicente: “She started to change into Vicente’s words and sometimes she would feel that it was more than words that were transformed.” This linguistic transformation gives rise to perhaps the most convincing and joyous moment in the novel, where Virginia is able to speak “the first word of her new experience.” This crisis of identity and where Virginia sees herself within the world is at least glimpsed at in that beautiful moment between her and Vicente.