When Book Reviewers Ignore Translators

As Co-Chair of the PEN Translation Committee, I frequently field complaints about book reviewers who ignore the fact that a book under review was written originally in some language other than English. Despite the shaping influence of the translator on the text, many reviewers simply choose to disregard the fact the the finished book was written twice: once by the author, and once by the translator. Or sometimes reviewers will say something on the subject, only to find that their editor has deemed these sentences superfluous and cut them out. In any case, even in cases when the translation is not given even the lip-service courtesy of a two-word descriptor (capably translated, beautifully translated, adequately translated, etc.), it is standard practice for newspapers to at least credit the translator in the brief blurb at the top of the review stating the book’s author, title and publisher. So it is particularly egregious that the Wall Street Journal’s recent review of Edith Grossman’s translation of Carlos Fuentes’s book Destiny and Desire does not do even that. Reading the review, it is not possible to ascertain that Fuentes’s book was not written in English. Now, the Wall Street Journal is a venerable newspaper with a long history of book reviewing and cultural reportage; I’ve even written for it myself. So I hope that this oversight was a fluke. But the error has still not been corrected and stands front and center upon the WSJ website for all to see, despite the letter that my colleague Jonathan Cohen, himself a translator from the Spanish and member of the PEN Translation Committee, sent to the editor of the WSJ two weeks ago. Since his letter was neither printed in the paper nor replied to in any other form, I am taking the liberty – with his permission – of reproducing it here:

Jan. 10, 2011

Dear Editor:

I am writing in response to a book review, titled “Intellectual Intrigue in Mexico City,” which appeared in the WSJ this past weekend.

“If English is good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me,” as some English-only advocates say in select corners of the United States, based on the blind assumption the Bible was originally written in English. Alexander Theroux’s review of Carlos Fuentes’ new novel, Destiny and Desire (Jan. 8), apparently subscribes to the same point of view, or blissful ignorance.

Why dumb down literature this way in our global age? Theroux talks very smartly about the book that, in reality, is a translation from Spanish – indeed, the work of acclaimed translator Edith Grossman – yet he never once addresses this important aspect of the book. He seems out of touch.

That said, we need to develop a culture of translation in this country, in which book reviewers can talk intelligently about translated books. The time is now. We belong to a big world of people who aren’t all made in our English-only image of ourselves.

I, for one, hope to see your editorial policy change to require that your book reviews acknowledge translations as such and name the translator(s) who authored them.


Jonathan Cohen

I would add that the omitted attribution is particularly ironic given that the reviewer’s brother, Peter Theroux, is himself a respected translator from Arabic as well as author. Alas, the exclusion of translators from discussions of their work is still a mainstream practice. Let’s do what we can to drive it to the fringes. Want to help? It’s easy! Just write a letter to the editor every time you see a review of a translated book that discusses the book as though it were not a translation. If enough letters come in, the newspapers will eventually change their ways. I’m sure they will. A little optimism can’t hurt.

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  1. kjd says:

    Good luck to you, Jonathan and Susan.

    I’ve been particularly impressed by an initiative by the German translators’ association, VdÜ. After many years of complaining about inadequate reviews and praising the good ones, they recently started running seminars on how to review translations.

    Here’s one journalist’s reaction: http://tinyurl.com/28bm4o3

    and a more favorable report:

    The next one is coming up in February, headed by the critic Ina Hartwig and the translator Frank Heibert.

  2. jw says:

    I actually use the fact of a translation as a positive selling point for a book. Something along the lines of “Books so nice, they’re written twice.”

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