20 November 07 | E.J. Van Lanen

Esther Allen—traductrice extraordinaire and Executive Director of the Center for Literary Translation at Columbia University—has a piece in The Guardian on reader’s reports.

The reader’s report struggles to swim against this current but also has to take it into account. It’s a bit like being an admissions officer at the world’s most selective institution: even the Nobel prize for literature is no guarantee you’ll get in. The bar has to be set terribly high because every translation into English that fails to sell makes its publisher that much less likely to do another one. Worse, the power of a reader’s report is almost entirely negative. Barbara Epler of New Directions famously decided to publish the great WG Sebald on the strength of a negative reader’s report, but in general a bad report guarantees that a book won’t be published. A good report, however, is likely to be ignored. Worst of all, even when a good report does lead to publication—and the publisher finds a translator who’s up to the task—the translated book will probably be left to its own devices in the marketplace, with little or no publicity, and will therefore ultimately be deemed a failure. All of which leaves those of us who write reader’s reports in a rather ambiguous position.

Reader’s reports are something we rely on too. Analyzing them, and making decisions based on them, is far more art than science. I suppose it’s like any kind of review that you’d read of a movie or a CD: it isn’t necessarily what they say that interests you or pushes you away, or even the way they say what they say, but, like Barbara Epler and Sebald, a good reader’s report will allow you to see how you will relate to the book. And, sad as it is to say, a reader’s report is sometimes the only thing we have to go on.

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