June 5, 2014

Moving the needle in the world of translation: BEA, LBF, and “The Translator Writes Back”


Image via Shutterstock.

Image via Shutterstock.

This has been a fine, fine couple of weeks for translation. First, there was BookExpo America in New York last week, which dedicated all of Wednesday to translation as part of its Global Market Forum, which was followed  by a series of “how to” panels organized by the PEN Translation Committee (“How to Find the Right Translator for Your Project,” “How to Draw a Crowd for Translated Books”) and a bevy of other events organized by various cultural institutes, foreign governments, funding programs and the occasional publisher (the full list is available here). This was a new and heartening development —as far as I know, BEA had never before devoted so much time to discussions of  translation, to seeing the field as one entity rather than on a country-by-country or a language-by-language basis.

The British, though, are far ahead of us on this, and they saw our game and raised it by releasing basically a gajillion videos from the London Book Fair’s annual Literary Translation Centre, which has been going for three years now, and stretches across all three days of the fair. Where BEA’s Market Forum programming had the feeling of first steps (I can’t have been the only person to gag a bit at the title given to the day’s events, “Wanderlust for the Written Word”), the LBF events went a little deeper in: panels on translating minority languages, on translation and the Arab Spring, on the nuts and bolts of getting started as a translator.

And now, along comes “The Translator Writes Back,” to shift the needle still further. “The Translator Writes Back” is a Tumblr blog on which translators can post their responses to reviews of their work. It has so far one entry, from Alison Entrekin, translator from Portuguese. But oh man, what an entry. Entrekin is responding to a May 17 review in the Guardian by British novelist Justin Cartwright of her translation of Brazilian author Daniel Galera’s novel Blood-Drenched Beard, recently published by Hamish Hamilton in the UK. In his review, Cartwright praised the book but took issue with what he called “countless infelicities” in the language, and blamed them on the translator, ending the piece with the lines “This is an interesting and original book, and the final chapter is particularly moving. Shame about the translation.”

Politely but very very pointedly, Entrekin takes him to task for not making clear whether or not he’d actually read the original and could therefore say that what he considered infelicities were introduced by the translator, not reflections of Galera’s original prose style. She also raised the issue of whether expressions that Cartwright had objected to as “jarring American colloquialism[s]” (an expression which fills my scrappy American editor’s heart with glee) were appropriate for an audience that might increasingly speak a globalized English.

Entrekin emphasizes the second point, but I would emphasize the first, mostly because it seems like the more serious cheap shot. In fact, in many ways, “The Translator Writes Back” is the more confrontational twin to a series of blogposts that Words Without Borders ran in 2011, “On Reviewing Translations,” which provided guidelines and directions of thought to reviewers to keep them from doing exactly what Cartwright has done — an unjustified dismissal of a translation. (Unjustified praise can be almost as bad, as in the scourge of single characterizing adjectives — “lucidly translated,” “a fresh translation,” etc etc—that Scott Esposito calls out in his post.)

It isn’t the dismissal here that stings — all reviewers have the right to say that some words and lines and books are better than others. It’s Cartwright’s automatic location of the fault in the translation, without any reference to the original. It is actually an easy problem to solve, even the space of a short review: you just say whether or not you have read the original, and if you haven’t, make that clear. And then go forward with your critique. Without parceling out praise to the author and blame to the translator in a kind of “giveth with one hand, taketh away with the other” move.

In the past, a translator’s options for responding to a review like this would have been limited: a letter to the editor, grousing on Facebook, perhaps an email to the reviewer. The fact that “The Translator Writes Back” exists feels like an indication that another stage has been reached in translators’ visibility, and in making these discussions basically more intelligent and less lazy. That Entrekin signs off her letter “Faithfully” (was this deliberate? how could it not have been?) only sweetens the situation.


Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.