As touched upon in the roundup post I did about the Reviewing Translations panel at the Miami Book Fair International, there are a lot of issues involved when reviewing a translation. Especially related to the hows and whys of commenting on the quality of the translation.
To many, one of the big problems is the reviewer’s inability to read the book in the original. Instead he/she ends up commenting on the English only, complaining about it if it’s too odd (“stilted, awkward rendition”) or if it’s too smooth (“dumbed down for Americans”).
The ability to judge the quality of a translation is something I don’t really want to get into here. Or at least not now. (There’s a big philosophical divide when it comes to this topic, not only in terms of reviewing, but editing as well.)
Over the weekend though, a reader contacted me because she was upset by this post of Ben Ivry’s review of Sverre Lyngstad’s new translation of Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil.
As I mentioned in the post, I haven’t had a chance to read the translation yet—though I really want to—but I did include Ben’s negative comments about the translation.
Personally, I thought his “evidence”—the use of the word “patten,” of “old people’s theriac,” etc.—was interesting, and a valid critique of the translation. (At least it’s clear he read the book and didn’t just use the jacket copy as his review . . .)
It’s only fair to point out some of the other reviews though, all of which are much more positive about the translation, such as the comment in the New Yorker that “Hamsun’s heroic translator, splendidly captures the author’s voice as he guides his large cast into the stresses of the modern age.”
And Julia Keller’s evaluation in the Chicago Tribune:
Thanks to the new translation by Sverre Lyngstad, Hamsun’s novel is a moving and lyrical reading experience, a poetical blend of old and new, of the lasting and the transitory, of the stillness at the world’s core.
Whether or not this is a good translation is still a matter of debate, and not really what I want to focus on. (I assume it’s pretty good with some word choices that some people might disagree with.)
What’s important is that once again, these positive evaluations of the translation are only a few words long—“splendidly,” “moving and lyrical, a poetical blend”—yet as readers we put faith in the reviewer’s viewpoint, despite the fact that neither Keller nor the New Yorker reviewer probably read Norwegian.
I’m probably not the norm when it comes to this, but I like to read reviews that include information about the translation. I just think that if at all possible reviewers should implicitly or explicitly explain their evaluation criteria in their review, especially when talking about retranslations.
People still disagree about the best translation of The Master and Margarita, and it goes without stating that evaluating translations isn’t an objective science. But to make the conversation more interesting, to get people engaged with these books, and to give translators a bit more credit when it comes to evaluating the choices they made, I think it would be best to avoid one-adjective pronouncements, good or bad.
(And yes, I know that I’m totally guilty of this in the Three Percent reviews I write . . .)
Benjamin Ivry has a very interesting piece in today’s New York Sun on the new translation of Knut Hamsun’s Growth of the Soil:
“Growth of the Soil,” one of these later works, tells of a peasant, Isak, and his harelipped wife Inger, who strangles her infant daughter after she is born with her own harelip. Their life is narrated with Olympian disdain, but occasionally a kind of grudging admiration peeps through the irony: “Two lonely people, ill-favored and all too lusty, but a boon to each other, to the animals, and to the earth!” Hamsun juxtaposes scornful comments about Isak’s “dense naiveté” with sibylline observations like “The years pass quickly, do they? Yes, for the one who is growing old.” “Growth of the Soil” is as gloomy as anything written by the Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck, and yet a posturing preface to the new edition by the American poet Brad Leithauser bizarrely likens “Growth of the Soil” to “Robinson Crusoe,” because both books supposedly extol “husbandry.”
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .
Twenty-One Days of a Neurasthenic is not a novel in the traditional sense. Rather, it is a collection of vignettes recorded by journalist Georges Vasseur in his diary during a month spent in the Pyrenées Mountains to treat his nervous. . .
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .