Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

You Can't Please Everyone

Beyond the Rice Fields is out. We've been getting some really nice reviews about it. (And there will be a giveaway coming after American Thanksgiving! Watch this space.)

Reviews are all subjective, though. One person's opinion. And people's opinions can vary wildly. I accept that. It's part of putting creative things out into the world -- no matter how much negative reviews might hurt.

And yet . . . sometimes you have to wonder.

Here's one review in Publishers Weekly. It includes this:

"Naivo’s encyclopedic attempt to capture Madagascar’s history is admirable, but the depth of that portrait comes at the expense of the novel’s characters: they are only fully realized in the novel’s thrilling conclusion, and only then as victims of “the foundational animosities” tearing the island apart. Nevertheless, Naivo provides readers with an astonishing amount of information about Madagascar’s culture and past."

Seems legit.

Here's another review from the Historical Novel Society. It includes this:

"The period of Queen Ranavalona’s horrific reign was one of intensity and violence, and yet for a few occasions near the end of the book, much of the historical context is superficial at best."
"Naivo captures a profound relationship between two people and how vastly our lives and experiences change on our various paths, while also illuminating the Malagasy experience."

Also seems legit.

*record scratch*

Wait. Wait a sec. So, on the one hand, the characters are sacrificed at the expense of the historical context, and on the other, the historical context suffers from the relationship between the characters?

Friends, I have translated a paradox. It seems congratulations are in order. :-P

Hey, at least people are talking about it.

Wine and Books

They go really well together.

Kidding. Well, not actually kidding at all. But that's not what this is about.

So, more specifically: book reviews and wine descriptions. They're starting to get scarily similar.

No, I haven't started reading about "hints of oak" or "overtones of caramel" in book reviews. But you know the thing about wine descriptions: there are a select few people in this world whose palates are trained enough to be able to pick out those notes of plum or dark chocolate without being prompted. For the rest of the world, there's just a simple difference between good wines and bad wines. And for the most part, it's all completely subjective. Your own tastes determine whether a wine is good or bad to you, whether you'll enjoy it or not. There are a few wines that pretty much everyone agrees are universally good, but even there, everyone may have a different reason for drinking it.

The more book reviews I read, the more I think that books are just the same as wine. There are lots of good books out there, and lots of not-so-good ones. But move beyond that almost-universal dichotomy, even ever so slightly, and it suddenly becomes a matter of personal taste. I think Perec and the Oulipo crowd are fascinating; other people can't get over the craziness. On the flip side, I really appreciate the widely-acclaimed Maidenhair, but I still haven't managed to finish it.

I read a book for a class last spring that I thought was . . . fine.* I thought the book had some pretty ambitious and admirable goals, but that it didn't really achieve many of them. But there are other reviews out there, other readers who think the book was amazing. They've used words like "vibrancy" and "liveliness" to describe the author's writing. They speak of an "authenticity" in the retelling that I didn't see. They describe the "impassioned" and "arresting" story, which are very present emotions that I didn't feel.

I know book reviews can be extremely subjective, but there's also a rather large element of authority that we ascribe to many book reviewers. It's the same kind of trust we place in sommeliers and winegrowers, the ones who know the terroir, who know the kind of volcanic soil in Sicily that give this particular wine its peat-moss quality, the lack of rain in the third week of August in 2003 that causes the elevated sweetness of that particular Riesling, the bourbon barrels that age one of California's Cab Sauvs in a specific way. They know things, so we trust them.

But if you can't taste the peach, does that mean you're a bad wine drinker? If you don't feel "arrested" by the story, does that make you a bad reader?

No. Of course not. The beauty of humankind's variety, all our wide-ranging tastes, and all that. Personal preference will always have some sort of effect on our judgment of subjective artistic endeavors, whether experienced over our palate or through our brain. As long as you can explain why something didn't mesh with your tastes--in an intelligent fashion, without making personal attacks--your opinion is just as valid as any reviewer's.



*This has no bearing on the author, whom I met--I think this person is pretty fabulous and a great speaker. I'm also purposefully not giving enough information to identify either the work or the author, since this is not about my personal experience with the book, but rather just looking at the general subjectivity of literary enjoyment.

Devil's Advocate

Here's a not-so-popular idea: translators should have the visibility of editors, not authors.

There was a whole uproar on a literary translators forum a while back about an article in the NYTimes, where David Gordon, an mid-range American author wrote about his strange and unexpected success in Japan. Translators were getting their panties all in a twist because said author never once mentioned his translator, who was probably single-handedly responsible for said Japanese success. Some even took him to task on his own blog for it, where he responded quite gracefully:

My translator's name is Aoki Chizuru and I certainly have thanked her, in person, in print and in public, in English and in Japanese, and have also expressed gratitude when receiving the awards for those who even made it possible for me to read the books I loved from Japan and elsewhere. She translated my second book as well and is working on the third. So don't worry!

Either way, it sparked a couple of comments from translators lamenting about the fact that authors and reviewers not only didn't mention their translators in print, but editors were also left out.

Editors are pretty much universally left out. As are publishing houses. And agents. And publicists. And foreign rights directors. All the damn time.

Far from being something to moan and whine about, this is instead just the normal course of business. There are always the players in the limelight, and the dozens of other people behind each one of them that makes everything happen. And it's not just in the book industry, either. How many producers do you know in the music industry, besides Brian Eno and Timbaland? How often are screenwriters publicly thanked and acknowledged for their work, besides the credits at the end of a movie and the Academy Awards (and even then, those awards might not be shown in the main broadcast)? How many times have you wandered through an old European city without knowing the names of any of the artists who sculpted the half-naked marble beauties in the park?

I'm not arguing that translators do unimportant work. Far from it. Translation is some of the most important artistic work out there, if such things can even be ranked on some sort of scale. But how do you compare a translator's importance and artistic merit with the original author? Or with an editor's influence?

And what if, as was mentioned in one of my classes recently, a book reviewer is working with an extremely limited word count -- 500 words, maybe even 300, a mere blurb. Feel free to take such reviewers to task if the translator's name is not mentioned in the metadata listing of the book, but if the translator gets glossed over in such a bite-sized review, it's not such a crime, really.

Related to that, there was a time when PEN's Translation Committee sent strongly-worded letters condemning a reviewer if they neglected to mention the translator in their review. Far from bringing about the expected change, many reviewers bristled quite a bit at such an attack. Their reasoning was that at least they were reviewing any translations in the first place. Which is a fair point.

There's a time and a place to thank everyone involved in a bringing a book to life, and hopefully, everyone all gets their proper due. But normally, the spotlight is fixed entirely on the author and his or her words, no matter how much revising or rewriting or writing their editor actually did throughout the whole process. Why should translators be treated any differently?

Whew. End thought experiment. For now.

(Disclaimer: as you can probably figure out by the title, I'm playing devil's advocate here. I'm not at all convinced by my own argument, but it's an interesting idea.)

(Also, there are plenty of articles out there playing rebuttal to this. See Words Without Borders and Asymptote's blog to start.)

Stellar reviews don't make anyone blue!

Marketing for The Last Love of George Sand is in full swing, with pub date only two weeks away. But the first review came in last year. Yep, this review from Kirkus was posted way back in early December. Publishing timelines are weird. But enough about that, the review itself is brilliant!

Now, Kirkus is an especially important reviewer to get. They call themselves "The World's Toughest Book Critics Since 1933," and it's no joke. The entire industry looks to them for helpful, honest reviews. And they have starred reviews, which they award "to Books of Exceptional Merit."

Ladies and gentlemen.

I present to you.

The STARRED Kirkus review for The Last Love of George Sand.

Delightful reconstruction of the deeply fulfilling, late-life romance of the French novelist with a devoted, younger engraver.

Obviously a labor of love, this work by the accomplished French biographer Bloch-Dano (Vegetables: A Biography, 2012, etc.) is highly entertaining and original. The author sees her job as reassembling the life of her subject from scattered pieces and “the ravages of time” and then, if all else fails, using her imagination to fill in the details much like a novelist. The result is a series of pointed assertions like light bulbs going off in her head, questions and switching to the present tense, all while sticking to the courageous, romantic spirit of her subject. George Sand was in her mid-40s when her son brought his engraver friend Alexandre Manceau to spend the holidays of 1849 at her beloved ancestral home, Nohant. A famous novelist and playwright, she was now bone-weary after the failures of the socialist revolution of 1848, into which she had thrown herself, and strapped by debts and squabbles with her headstrong daughter. Nohant had always served as her refuge, in between bruising stints in Paris and maternal love affairs with a series of “men-children.” Bloch-Dano ably portrays Sand's attraction to the 32-year-old engraver, a man of modest beginnings and much talent, highly intuitive, intelligent and devoted to Sand. Manceau not only took over the theatrical productions at Nohant, but also assumed the role of her secretary and copyist, living with her for 14 years while plying his commissions as a sought-after engraver. Bloch-Dano’s portrait is poignant and beautifully researched.

A love story probably suppressed by Sand’s resentful son, brought here to vivid life in the hands of her capable biographer.

Color me very proud.

"What then remains, but to bow your heads before such a wonder?"

I came very close to translating music. I did. The libretto is close, right? Right before Christmas, the New York Choral Society performed Hector Berlioz's L'enfance du Christ in Carnegie Hall, with supertitles translated by yours truly. The hall was packed. I was very lucky to be there.

There were some stunning reviews, and deservedly so, for the concert was fantastic. But one, this one, from Downtown Magazine, gave me such satisfaction. And I quote:

"The show’s epilogue was indelible all on its own. The whole company projected of Christ’s future and ultimate sacrifice with some very simple yet heart wrenching words: 'What then remains, but to bow your heads before such a wonder?'"

How could the reviewer possibly have known what was being said, without the supertitles projected for all the audience to see?

I don't need public acclaim for my work. It's nice, but I'd rather the notice fall on my work. The books, the poetry, the music, the work that should be seen and read and heard by as many people as possible.

So when people do notice the work, and especially when they notice it so seamlessly that they don't even consider there was a translator standing in between them and the original text, that is a very high compliment, indeed.