Critical Mass

On Reviewing Translations:

By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Last month, Words Without Borders completed an eight-part series titled “On Reviewing Translations,” which brought insight from critics and translators alike to the issues that come up with writing about translation.  NBCC board member Rigoberto González's contribution is here:

With so few titles getting translated into English, it seems ludicrous to impose too many conditions in terms of matching a book reviewer to a translated project, or even in terms of determining whether a translated project is worth reviewing. The sad fact is that those of us reviewing books already have a minuscule pool to draw from–someone else (translators? publishers? publicists?) controls the impression we receive from a country’s literature, which may or may not reflect the highest quality of writing from that country. It also bears reiterating that translators don’t have to be fluent in the language they are translating, so why should book reviewers? I believe that the conversation should not necessarily stem around the question of language–except maybe in the translation, study and evaluation of poetry (and some prose) that is more aesthetically-bound–but rather around the question of cultural context.

As a Latino book reviewer of U.S. Latino books, I am used to this process: Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban American, Dominican American authors, for example, will write within and against the legacies of their respective communities–homeland history, immigrant trajectory, political and class struggles particular to national identity, and literary ancestry, in Spanish, in English, and everything in between. My responsibility as a book reviewer is to frame the work, when relevant, around ethnic and cultural definitions. In this way, I am “translating” for readers the landscape that informs and influences U.S. Latino writers.

When I write about books in translation, I will usually choose those written by Mexican authors–as a person who was raised in Mexico I feel a particular loyalty and sense of responsibility to celebrate these works but also take them to task, when appropriate. I make no apologies, for example, in pointing out that, unlike Chicano authors, Mexican authors usually come from privileged classes, that the working-class voice or perspective remains relatively unexplored by Mexican letters. At times it is also important to place the work and its author within an era (or presidency) of Mexico’s history. My knowledge of Mexican culture (especially pop and urban culture) comes in handy, both as a reader enjoying the inside jokes and references, and as an evaluator of how these elements add to the narrative. I am not by any means an authority on Mexican culture, but my interest in the nation extends beyond reading books by Mexican authors, and I cannot read the literature without making connections to Mexico’s dynamic social-political milieu.

Therein the burden of works in translation—they are the designated representatives of an entire nation, ambassadors of a culture and people. And since these glimpses into another place and time are few and far between, a reviewer should know enough about the nation’s larger picture to assess, not authenticity or verisimilitude, but rather perspective, motivation, purpose, and limitations. Imagine, for example, if the only works getting exported from the U.S. were written by Republicans? Or by New Yorkers? Or by men? It would be essential for readers to know that the complexity of a country is not fully represented by the literature, but also what this singular view of American identity has to offer.

I suppose what I’m reacting to is the reader’s propensity to believe he has learned about a country simply by reading a few books from that country’s authors. I could pick on Russian or German letters, but I’ll stick to my own people: It would pain me to imagine that my beloved Mexico is in the hands of what little gets translated into English. Therefore it also behooves me to translate even further: Where is this text coming from? What thread in the tapestry is it highlighting?

Another sad truth: works in translation are rarely reviewed, many because of this irrational belief that the reviewer should assess the quality of the translation. Is it really that relevant to readers? Which is why I offer another solution: to return to the translator’s note, foreword or other introductory remark that will provide for all readers some level of orientation. I believe in the end that’s what book reviewers do: orient the reader.