Recruiting for the Reviewer Hall of Fame

Those of you who attended the PEN Translation Committee-sponsored panel at this year’s ALTA conference (and thank you for attending in such droves that the panel was standing-room-only!) know that one of the Translation Committee’s main current projects is creating a “Translator’s Toolkit.” For as long as the Translation Committee has existed, it has attempted to address translators’ distress at seeing their work ignored, particularly in reviews of translated books, which often address the translator’s contribution to the book either not at all or seriously inadequately. After extensive talks with representatives of the National Book Critics Circle, the members of the PEN subcommittee working on replacing the outdated “Reviewer Guidelines” with something more useful have decided to change tacks. The new approach looks like this: Instead of reproaching reviewers for not addressing our work, we should do everything in our power to make it easy for them to do so. Reviewers don’t want to risk looking like idiots, so they tend to be pretty cautious when it comes to discussing aspects of a book they don’t feel well-informed about, and it turns out that translation is one of these. So let’s inform them. The “Translators Toolkit” will wind up containing suggestions for supplementary information about a book that can be distributed to potential reviewers along with the usual publicity materials a publisher tucks inside review copies before sending them out. The exact recommendations are still a work in progress, but I expect to see a list of suggestions including items like this: a description of the book’s stylistic peculiarities in the original and how the translator sought to address them, status of the author in her original-language context, any particular anecdotes of interest surrounding the translation, etc. These are things likely to interest both reviewers and readers of reviews.

The PEN panel at ALTA, “The Marketing Toolkit: How Translators Can Make Their Work Matter,” put together by PEN Translation Committee members Minna Proctor (who moderated splendidly), Margaret Carson (who sat on the panel) and Mary Ann Newman, featured four publishing professionals who made additional suggestions about how a translator can help promote the books she translates.

Silverberg and Lependorf

Ira Silverberg (now head of the Literature Division at the National Endowment for the Arts, former editor, publisher and agent) says he wishes translators were more actively involved in publicizing their books. He says it’s helpful for translators to select and translate reviews from the book’s original language/country for inclusion in a book’s publicity kit, and encourages all translators to do as much promotion of a book as they can within their own personal and professional circles.

Jeffrey Lependorf, Executive Director of both the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses and Small Press Distribution, says: “Until a book has reached the reader’s hands, it has not yet been published, only printed.” He says that readers want to hear the same sorts of meta-stories from translators as they do from authors – in this case: “Why did you love this book and want to translate it?” He encourages translators to record brief (3 mins or under) videos about the book to be added to a book’s page on the publisher’s website. This can be a brief interview between translator and author, translator and editor, translator and movie star [oops, my addition], or just the translator solo speaking engagingly about the project. The question to answer is: What’s the interesting story behind this book?


Tom Roberge, head of publicity and marketing at New Directions, likes it when translators keep in close touch with him as marketing plans for a book develop. He recommends that translators offer to write bio notes of their authors that publishers can post online, and also encourages translators to review each other’s work on GoodReads, Amazon and similar websites.


Matvei Yankelevich, co-publisher of Ugly Duckling Presse and a translator himself, reports that a publisher he translated for asked him to start a Facebook page and a Twitter account for one book he translated and tweet quotes from the book. Ugly Duckling itself has an outstanding social media presence.

More tips from Lependorf:

•Don’t underestimate the marketing power of your own personal networks. Put a link to your new book in your e-mail signature.

•Write a one-page statement (no longer!) about why you translated the book. Come up with a list of up to ten questions (comprising a study guide to the book) that can be used by reading groups, or by teachers in the case of a book that might be appropriate for course adoption.

•Ask a blog you regularly read to post an interview with you.

There were surely other good suggestions as well that I didn’t manage to capture in my notes, so I’ll post a podcast of the panel once the video is made available (one of the conference organizers recorded it). Watch this space.

Meanwhile I do have one request from the members of the subcommittee putting together the new “Translator’s Toolkit” for the PEN website: One of the new features on the site will be a “Reviewer Hall of Fame” that includes links to reviews that speak particularly thoroughly and illuminatingly about the translation of the book under review. Readers of Translationista are invited to nominate candidates for inclusion. We don’t want examples of reviews that praise the translation with a single epithet or phrase (“skillfully translated,” “eloquently translated,” “a translation displaying skillful eloquence,” etc.); nor do we want “Professor Horrendo”-style reviews that criticize the translation by picking apart particular word choices on the translator’s part. What we want are reviews that speak intelligently about the translator’s overall strategy and contribution to the book, evaluating the strengths (or weaknesses) of the translation overall and using examples to support the reviewer’s findings. If you have come across reviews of this caliber, please send us links to the complete review here. Thank you so much for your help!

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  1. Charlie O. says:

    In 2010, I wrote for the Cleveland “Plain Dealer” a review of Per Peterson’s “Out Stealing Horses.” When I requested to review the novel, the PD’s book editor had never heard of Peterson and there was no sense that it was about to win the IMPAC. She only trusted me because I’d reviewed Bolaño’s “Last Evenings on Earth” before Francine Prose had helped launch the Chilean’s importance in the U.S. (In that case I had read half the original stories in Spanish).

    When reviewing the Peterson, I had a 500-600 word limit and was writing for an audience that probably had little interest if the translation was accurate; they wanted to know if the book was worth reading. Given the circumstances, I could only make a one sentence reference to the translation and how it conveyed Peterson’s style as a writer. And I had to word it in a way that didn’t suggest I was evaluating the translation as a transference. I could only evaluate it in the sense that it made Peterson seem like he must be a fine writer in his own language because he sounded so good in English.

    I understand that there’s a growing desire among translators that reviewers evaluate translations. I think in certain venues this makes sense. But when I read Michael Hofmann’s translation of Wolfgang Koeppen’s “Death in Rome” all I cared about as a reader is that the marvelous prose felt like this was how the novel would sound if the author had written in the target language. I started to read other novels just because Hofmann was the translator, and I have favorite translators that I follow as seriously as favorite writers.

    As a reader of world literature and a sometime reviewer, I hope we don’t create an environment in which reviewers become scholars rather than deep readers who care share their experiences with other possible readers. If every reviewer of world literature has no know the source language and the original text of a translated novel, then the number of review of translated fiction may be diminished. There certainly would have been no reviews of two Per Peterson novels in Cleveland.

  2. arablit says:

    I think Lependorf’s suggestions are great, and I think yes, the emphasis should be on empowering (not shaming) reviewers. Most reviews of Arabic fiction are already sufficiently timid and confused.

    Also: If there are Ara-Eng translators out there who haven’t thought about running a Q&A about their new work on a blog, well, jeez guys!

  3. As a book blogger who receives review copies for a couple of magazines, this would be very, very useful as right now I have to feel my way book by book relying a lot of the time on instinct and searching the web for interviews with authors and translators to get snapshots of the challenges that particular book posed. I love reviewing fiction in translation so anything that builds up that bridge between author-translator-reader would be wonderful.

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