Sunshine Abroad

The trials and rewards of French translation and beyond

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.)

Next Idea in Reviewing Translations

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?

In Which My Favorite Magazine Perpetuates a Terrible Stereotype

The debate is still raging over how best to review literature in translation (see this Words Without Borders collection for a primer), and the struggle continues to even get it reviewed in the first place. In the meantime, though, everyone seems to have agreed on one thing:

Good translations don't read like translations.

The highest praise you can give a translation right now, if you don't read the source language, is that reading it feels like you're reading something in English (or whatever language it's been translated into), not an awkward, grammatically-identical rendering of the original language.

This stereotype, this easy criticism, that translations generally read badly in the target language, is one of the main reasons that mainstream publishers are so hesitant, even averse, to publishing works in translation. It's an opinion that we're trying to get changed.

So I suppose I was surprised, as I reached the April 1st issue from my backlog of The New Yorker magazines, to read the Shouts and Murmurs humor/satire column, Gavin Shulman's "Taxicab Conversation," subtitled, "The important call that every New York City cabdriver is on: a translation." It begins:

Driver: Hello.
Caller: Hello. What is up? 

Oh dear. Please, don't tell me. By writing "What is up?" instead of "What's up?" or "How're you doing?" or even "How are you?," this is automatically a translation. Right?

Maybe that's how your stereotypical cabdriver, who speaks English as a second or third or fourth language, might speak in English. But even if their native language's greeting translates directly into "What is up?," without any conjunctions, no translator in their right mind would render any character using such stilted phrases in their native language. Now, this is either trying to poke fun at non-native speakers' broken English, or it's showing a "normal" translation. A bad translation.

But weirdly, the piece is not completely free of conjunctions. Both the caller and the driver occasionally use them. And the writing isn't completely littered with awkward phrasing. This exchange is rather natural:

Caller: Are you listening to music?
Driver: Yes. The prayer mix you made me. Everyone loves it.
Caller: Good.

Instead of saying something stereotypically awkward, like "Yes. I am listening to the prayer mix that you made for me," the driver sounds more conversational here. Still, with the amount of "That is good"s and "You are right"s and "Is the city very pretty?"s, the reader can't help but be biased towards negativity.

Let's take a step back, though. The New Yorker is known for its remarkably finicky and stringent rules of style. For comparison, then, here are excerpts from three other recent Shouts and Murmurs columns.

"Apologies," by Cora Frazier, 4/22/2013:

I know I shouldn't have pointed at you from across the room, saying, "Isn't that guy hot?," ignoring the instructions of my teacher, Jason. (I'm sorry, Jason. You make it burn, and I love you.)

"Most Gwyneth!," by Paul Rudnick, 5/13/2013:

I ran to my therapist, and I begged her, "Can I really have it all? Most Beautiful and Most Hated?" She paused and then said, "You know, I've treated Jennifer Lopez, John Mayer, and the entire Kardashian family, along with a supermodel who refers to overweight people as sofas. So I know what you're up against."

"J-Day," by Yoni Brenner, 5/6/2013: 

Hitler: Is there no way to suppress it?
Göring (shaking his head): I’m afraid not. It’s just too catchy. We’ve had reports of humming and unsanctioned falsetto singing along the front lines, from Finland to North Africa.
Jodl: To be honest, if I were alone I’d probably be humming it right now.
(Suddenly, Hitler has an epiphany.)
Hitler: I’ve got it: we’ll kidnap him!

All perfectly conversational, while still retaining enough readability and stylistic clarity to be published in The New Yorker. Thus, Shulman's cabdriver really is the outlier.

But it gets worse. "J-Day" sets its scene in Germany, 1942, with Generals Göring, Himmler, and Jodl. A note mentions the following: "In keeping with Nazi protocol, they speak in sinister, heavily accented English."

So. Fictionalized, satirized German generals are speaking English as a second language with grace and fluidity, even as they retain a higher tonal register (e.g. "unsanctioned falsetto"). A month earlier, in the same column of the same magazine, a fictitious, satirized cabdriver speaks English as a second language in fits and starts, haltingly. Exactly as the general public incorrectly expects translations to read.

Or perhaps I'm just paranoid.

But most people wouldn't give that much thought to the matter. Readers of The New Yorker are, by in large, highly intelligent and widely educated, but the stereotype of bad translations is too prevalent. Highly intelligent people who aren't involved in the translation industry are apt to miss that part of the satire, the part where it makes fun of how translations are viewed. Because that's just how everyone knows them.

Maybe it's even worse. Maybe I'm even more paranoid. Mr. Shulman may not have even been trying to inject satire into those two words: "a translation."