How in the world does one actually review translations?
I think the better question is, why is this such a hard question?
I propose a new way of reviewing translations, by considering two questions:
FIRST: Is the book a good book, in a vacuum?
Does it weather the normal storm of questions asked when reviewing a "normal" book, the questions of style, pleasure of reading, intriguing ideas, and the like?
The trick when answering this question is to credit both the author and translator with any successes and pitfalls. Although the translator has less influence over certain aspects (like plot and general structure), both writers are still responsible for the book in the translated form you are reviewing. Credit them both.
SECOND: How important is this text, in the context of the target language's literature, the source language's literature, and literature as a whole?
Again, this is a similar question to what is asked of "normal" books. How does it fit into the grand literary tradition? Does it introduce something new, is it heavily influenced by other works, is it a breath of fresh air or a clever reinterpretation of something else?
Granted, the middle part of this question may be difficult for some reviewers to answer regarding some books. I myself have no idea what the state of literature is in Kazakhstan, but I also have the ability to use Google, and might be able to figure it out in less than five minutes.
I guess what it boils down to is that I am very confused as to why translations have to be treated differently than a country's own fiction. Why does the exoticism of translated literature scare people away, when we have writers like Zoë Wicomb, Kiran Desai, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writing IN ENGLISH about their "exotic" experiences from South Africa, India, and Nigeria, respectively, including italicized foreign words in their manuscripts that readers do actually learn to understand, and garnering both critical and popular acclaim?
Look. Translated books are just like regular books, except they have two (or more) writers to thank for either their brilliance or their failures.
Or is this overly simple, too simple? Is there more to it than just this?