In the Times Literary Supplement of 22-29 August 2014, Jim Campbell in his NB column took Nate Rich to task for his critique of Haruki Murakami’s style in a review of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, pointing out that the style Rich is critiquing is actually the style of the translator (who is not named in the review). If reviewers don’t speak the language from which book has been translated, there’s surely no way for them to make judgements about the style of the original. In the face of a bit of clotted prose we can assume the translator has either faithfully followed the original author’s tortuous style, or that he/she not done a very good job of Englishing it; the mess thus not being the original author’s fault. Unless you go to the original, or research criticism of it, you really can’t decide which is more likely. So if the reviewer doesn’t read the language of the original, then it’s a step too far to criticize the author’s use of that language.

JC rails again in his 25 September column. Joanna Briggs in reviewing Elena Ferrante’s The Story of the Lost Child waxes lyrical about the author’s style. As JC describes it:

Ms Biggs cites a passage of four sentences, including this one: “We would have written together, we would have been authors together, we would have drawn power from each other, we would have fought shoulder to shoulder . . .” She then proceeds to tell us how the writing works: “the second sentence — ‘we would . . . we would . . . we would’ uses repetition to create a sort of ironic momentum to this exemplary intellectual life they could never have had”. The fourth quoted sentence is “unlovely, with its rough prepositional phrases, with more than one ‘yet’: writing unpolished enough to be lifelike”.

We haven’t read the original, Storia della bambina perduta. If Ms Briggs has, she doesn’t say. But the effects that so impress her — repeated “we would”, unpolished “yet” — are created out of words chosen by the translator, Ann Goldstein, not Elena Ferrante. It may well be that she achieves the same effects in Italian, by similar means, but that’s a different matter.

And so it is. We have gotten much better at noticing the translator: respectable review media almost always mention the translator, but we haven’t managed as well to focus our reviewing on the real target, the way the translating has been done. There’s nothing wrong with criticism of the author’s style but that would involve reference to the original text as well as to the translation. Reviewing a translated novel as a novel is OK, but ideally we want our reviewer to review it as a translated novel, which would involve the reviewer’s actually reading the book in its original language as well. It would perhaps not be too unreasonable to expect this of a reviewer in responsible media. In this regard Tim Parks is a good example: see his review of the English translation, also by Ann Goldstein, of Jhumpa Lahiri’s memoir written in Italian. See also his related essay on writing in a language not your own.

Here’s an interesting discussion from Asymptote of the dos and don’ts of reviewing translated books. I agree that it isn’t essential for a reviewer to be fluent in the original language: I just think that in such a case the reviewer has to refrain from commenting on the language and style of the “book”.

It is gratifying to note that there seems to be an increase in the number of translated books being covered in our remaining print review media. The 3%-ers should be pleased. Actually I did notice that we run the risk of breaching that 3% ceiling — will they have to change their name to 4%? I remain unrepentantly skeptical of this 3% complaint. As I wrote before 3% of a big number may be more than 14% of a smaller one, and in 2011 it was. To update the numbers in that earlier post we can now say that 14% of the books published in France represents 10,918 titles, while 3% of those published in the USA comes to 10,170 books. Does the similarity of the numbers not suggest a similar interest in other cultures? We continue to increase the number of translations into English that we publish, but that number is merely a number; it’s not a measure of our cultural openness or any other kind of virtue.