I often complain about the internet, but I have recently read some smart essays online.
I was particularly interested in an essay by Chad W. Post at Three Percent, “Thinking About Book Reviews.” He begins by saying he did not much like Clarice Lispector’s second novel, The Chandelier, recently published by New Directions in a translation by Benjamin Moser. And Post’s reactions serve as a preamble to an essay on the purpose of book reviews.
Post asks whether reviewers of books in translation should hype books.
I think this is a commonly held belief—especially when it comes to reviews of translated books. There are so few opportunities for most of these titles to get any ink-time, so what’s the point in writing about a subpar book that you don’t really like? These opportunities should be maximized by drawing attention to wonderful books that are masterfully translated. If reviews are supposed to bring readers to particular books, shouldn’t we use this opportunity to direct the curious to the masterpieces out there?
Furthermore, what is gained—for the translation profession as a whole—by shitting on a translated title? Just don’t write/tweet/say anything! There are so many good books out there deserving of attention, not to mention all the great translators doing amazing work—so just write about those.
And then he replies to himself (and the reply is in italics):
But is that really what criticism is? How can the translation profession really improve if these books aren’t ever criticized? Translators, not to mention readers of international fiction, can gain a lot from seeing what works, what doesn’t work, witnessing the mind of a sharp reader in action.
I certainly agree with him on the issue of hype, which applies to all reviews, whether of books in English or translation. Are we under pressure to hype? I seldom post about books by living writers these days, because (a) most new books I read are mediocre to bad, and (b) I don’t want to ruin a writer’s day. (Reviewing was easier before the interactions on the internet.)
American and English literature seem to be in a slump these days. If I listed all the new books I have abandoned after reading half we’d be here all day. New books in translation seem to deal with more significant issues: is that possible? I loved Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, a brilliant Japanese retelling of Wuthering Heights, which won the Yomiuri Prize For Literature in 2002. (I wrote about it here.) But I can’t think of any American or English novel I’ve read in this class lately.
But reviews are problematic anyway. Hype? Not hype? New books? Old books? What do you think?
OTHER LITERARY LINKS:
At The New Yorker, Karen Russell writes about Joy Williams’ recently reissued second novel The Changeling.
Like Ovid, Shakespeare, Toni Morrison, and God, Williams is interested in metamorphosis, in the “monstrosity of salvation.” Her astonishing second novel, “The Changeling,” first published in 1978, follows Pearl, a young mother on the lam. Pearl’s drink of choice, too, is gin. In the book’s first sentence, she is in a bar, “drinking gin and tonics” while holding “an infant in the crook of her right arm.” Significantly, the booze precedes the infant. His name is Sam; he is two months old. We seem to be in a world of crushing sameness: parking lots and pretzel logs, homogeneous retail. It’s a costume the novel wears for about a paragraph and a half, then shrugs off with a spectacular gesture…
The American Scholar has re-posted a brilliant 2007 essay by Charles Trueheart on Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.
Speak the name Lawrence Durrell, as I have been doing recently, and you will have little trouble prompting the title of his masterwork, the four-novel cycle he called “The Alexandria Quartet.” Yes, everyone read it back when. Or some of it. Justine . . .Balthazar . . . The well of memory tends to run dry about there, leaving only the wistful fragrance of the little remembered but not quite forgotten.
Yet half a century ago, when Justine appeared, it elicited a rush of critical superlatives that announced the birth of a literary classic. Almost at once the novel established an outlandish reputation for Durrell, previously known for a precocious first novel and some sublime travel writing. He was confidently placed in the big shoes of Joyce, Proust, Henry Miller, and D. H. Lawrence, among other modernist forebears. “The novel may indeed be dying,” declared the critic Robert Scholes, “but we need not fear for the future. Durrell and others are leading us in a renaissance of romance.”
ENJOY THE LINKS!
I would argue each time a translated book is reviewed, half the piece should be on the text and that means the translator and by extension about translation. We might get more truthfulness, useful close reading, and help neglected good writers along.
Yes, I agree!
It’s tricky – I tend to try not to read books I would hate, and if I am negative I try to be measured. With translated work, am I qualified to comment on the translation? If I find it jerky or uncomfortable, who is to say it isn’t like that in the original language? Nevertheless, I think if you read a number of works by a particular person, all translated by the same translator, you *do* get a feeling of what the work should sound like. For that reason, I tend to have translators I trust… 🙂
Some translations are poorly-written, so it’s wonderful if there is more than one to choose from. Yes, we can’t know who is taking liberties and who is not, unless we know the language so “readable” is my great requirement.