Douglas Hofstadter, in his essay “Translator Trader,” argues instead for the translator’s visibility. In one delightfully provocative passage, Hofstadter recalls his reluctant rejection of his initial inclination to translate François Sagan’s “Bien entendu” with the idiomatic rhetorical question, “Well, what do you think – is the Pope Catholic?” His friends advised against the use of this American retort and Hofstadter eventually gave in, but not without a fight. “So what that Sagan had [her Lucille] say just ‘Bien entendu’? Is Lucille exclusively François Sagan’s character? Isn’t she at least a little bit my character? After all, who’s been choosing her words for the past hundred pages or so?”
As translators know all to well, the great majority of reviewers treat translations as invisible screens, either not commenting on the translation at all or reducing their evaluation to some banal phrase such as “seamless and fluid” or “smooth and readable” or, as one reviewer recently commented on one of my translations, “flows well enough even if it is marred by some jarring expressions.” What the expressions were and why they were jarring was left to the reader’s imagination.
A recent issue of the New York Review of Books featured a classic example of the invisible translation review. Rachel Donadio, former NY Times bureau chief in Rome reviewed Ann Goldstein’s latest translation of an Elena Ferrante novel. Apart from the usual superficial compliment (“splendidly vivid and fluent”) and one passing observation of the less ambiguous English version of an Italian phrase, Donadio says nothing about Goldstein’s translation. This in a review which quotes several times from it, in each case attributing the passage exclusively to Ferrante, thus diverting her readers’ attention from the decisive fact that when they read Ferrante’s novels they are not reading Ferrante but Goldstein’s interpretation of Ferrante in another language. The oversight is particularly striking when one considers that Goldstein’s translations have had much more critical and popular success than Ferrante’s originals. A recent article in Italy’s leading newspaper, La Repubblica, calls Ferrante the literary phenomenon of the moment, citing reviews (of Goldstein) in the New York Times and Foreign Policy.
Translator’s can take heart, however, that at least some reviewers notice their work. Two issues after Donadio’s blind review, the NYRB published a welcome counter example: Stephen Greenblatt’s review of Wayne Rebhorn’s new translation of Boccaccio’s Decameron (NYRB, Jan. 8 –Feb. 5 2015). The three-page review devotes two long paragraphs to the translation, describing Rebhorn’s overall approach, citing specific examples, and, most importantly, observing how the translation successfully interprets characteristic elements of the original. “But even in its dated, often slightly musty attempts at demotic ease, the overall effect is, I found, oddly charming, and for a simple reason. . . . [The use of words such as “gal”] “effectively helps to set up Boccaccio’s characteristic [use of] comic periphrasis . . .”.
Another reviewer may not have agreed with Greenblatt, but that’s not the point. Translators don’t want to be noticed by reviewers because they’re looking for a pat on the back. They want reviewers to analyze and evaluate their work in the same way they do the author’s work. That way, translators can benefit from constructive criticism and their readers can learn more about what they do and how they do it. Are such reviews beneficial to readers and authors as well as translators? What do you think? Is the Pope Catholic?