Yesterday’s post about how to dismiss translations caused a good deal of discussion in the comments section, ranging from Monica’s question about whether other cultures have this same authenticity/accuracy/I-can’t-judge-without-knowing-the-original language issues (I doubt it, but would love to hear from international readers about this) to Paul Verhaeghen’s spot-on critique about how all culture is translation and that these issues don’t come up in regard to music or visual arts.
There’s also a comment from Dan Green (the inspiration behind the initial post) reiterating that in addition to wanting more translations, he also wants more informed critics writing about these books (I totally agree). He also responded to part of my argument about treating the book as a book rather than questioning it’s accuracy, etc.:
“If you don’t think a part of a translation is up to snuff, point out what you don’t like about it.”
But how am I to know what’s not up to snuff in the translation itself if I don’t have the ability to judge it against the original?
(I do want to point out one thing here—I think Paul Verhaeghen’s amazing Omega Minor is a book that Dan can review, since Verhaeghen wrote it in Flemish, but also translated it into English. That said, the Dalkey version is not exactly the same as the original . . . )
My belief is that you simply have to treat the book as it is. A translation isn’t the same as the original, and can be/should be evaluated on its own terms. If a sentence is poorly written, or a chapter overly muddy, it’s a moot point to debate if this was the fault of the translator or author. It’s part of the book as it exists in translation and can be criticized as such.
The real reason I’m writing this today though is because his comment reminded me of a response Michael Emmerich gave in a recent interview in Calque. The interviewer asked, “what distinguishes a good translation from a poor one?”
The reader. This sounds like another dodge, I know. But that’s the best answer. Unless we’re talking about a particular translation, and considering it in relation to the context within which it came into being, trying to determine how well it meets the needs it was designed to meet. [. . .] We tend to assume, for instance, that readers who are able to compare a translation with the work that inspired it are best equipped—are perhaps the only ones equipped—to judge its merits. And yet translations aren’t designed to meet the needs of readers who . . . I can’t think how to say this without slipping into tautology . . . who don’t need a translation.
To tell the truth, I suspect that readers who can compare translations and originals actually tend to be worse judges of the quality of a translation than people who are unable to read the original. [. . .]
Of course, readers who can access both the original and the translation are able to find obvious mistakes, and that’s something only they can do, and that can be important. But surely that’s not what we mean when we ask what distinguishes good translations from bad? We’re interested in something that runs deeper, I would hope—not something so superficial that any old multilingual reader can come along and point it out after a hasty comparison of the two texts. [. . .]
The last five days of the eleventh-century Icelandic politician, writer of sagas, and famous murder victim Snorri Sturleleson (the Norwegian spelling, Snorre, is preserved in the book) make up Thorvald Steen’s most recently translated historical fiction, The Little Horse. Murdered. . .
We all know Paris, or at least we think we know it. The Eiffel Tower. The Latin Quarter. The Champs-Élysées. The touristy stuff. In Dominique Fabre’s novel, Guys Like Me, we’re shown a different side of Paris: a gray, decaying. . .
One hundred pages into Birth of a Bridge, the prize-winning novel from French writer Maylis de Kerangal, the narrator describes how starting in November, birds come to nest in the wetlands of the fictional city of Coca, California, for three. . .
At 30, the Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli is already gathering her rosebuds. Faces in the Crowd, her poised debut novel, was published by Coffee House Press, along with her Brodsky-infused essay collection, Sidewalks. The essays stand as a theoretical map. . .
Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires: An Attainable Utopia (narrated by Julio Cortázar) is, not disappointingly, as wild a book as its title suggests. It is a half-novella half-graphic novel story about . . . what, exactly? A European tribunal, Latin. . .
Marie NDiaye has created a tiny, psychological masterpiece with her Self-Portrait in Green. In it she explores how our private fears and insecurities can distort what we believe to be real and can cause us to sabotage our intimate relationships.. . .
Reading a genre book—whether fantasy, science fiction, crime, thriller, etc.—which begins to seem excessively, stereotypically bad, I have to make sure to ask myself: is this parodying the flaws of the genre? Usually, this questioning takes its time coming. In. . .
The Sicilian Mafia has always been a rich subject for sensational crime fiction. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos worked the mob’s bloody corpses and family feuds to both entertainment and artistic value. Giuseppe di Piazza’s debut novel attempts this,. . .
Antoine Volodine’s vast project (40 plus novels) of what he calls the post-exotic remains mostly untranslated, so for many of us, understanding it remains touched with mystery, whispers from those “who know,” and guesswork. That’s not to say that, were. . .
It hasn’t quite neared the pitch of the waiting-in-line-at-midnight Harry Potter days, but in small bookstores and reading circles of New York City, an aura has attended the novelist Elena Ferrante and her works. One part curiosity (Who is she?),. . .