Reviewing translations

I didn’t mean to drop off the edge of the blogging world there. I just finished my dissertation and…didn’t feel like writing anything else. Ever. I hear that’s a reasonably common reaction. Instead I have been reading a lot, and translating a lot (I know that’s also writing, but it feels different from the other kind), and selling a lot of books.

I have also, of course, been reading a lot of books, and am currently in that blissful state of having two books on the go and really, really enjoying both of them. My at-home book is Dutch children’s classic The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt, recently translated by Laura Watkinson and published by Pushkin; my at-work book is Taiwanese magic-realist eco-fantasy brilliant thing The Man With the Compound Eyes by Wu Ming-Yi, translated by Darryl Sterk and published by Harvill Secker. I’ll review them here when I’m finished. I still feel a bit insecure about reviewing translations, especially when I don’t speak a word of the source language, but fortunately Words Without Borders has a great resource for this:a whole lot of interesting articles about reviewing translations, all written by different people with different perspectives on the matter. I found this one by Daniel Hahn particularly useful. He approaches the matter quite straightforwardly: a reviewer should commend (or criticise) people for what they are actually responsible for. The person responsible for a book’s stunning cover design is not the author, it’s the cover designer, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. Likewise, the person responsible for skilful word choice and elegant sentence structure is not the author, it’s the translator, and as I’ve said before, I don’t see why there should be anything wrong with acknowledging that either.

I also wonder sometimes how my experience as a translator affects the ways in which I read translations. I know I get very excited about puns and idioms, and any hints of non-standard dialect in speech – anything that makes me think about the fact that the translator had to make a choice here, that there was an interesting linguistic problem to be solved here and the words I’m reading represent just one solution among many. The translator as pane of glass is not a metaphor that appeals to me, at all – I prefer the translator as ghost.

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