Saturday, September 08, 2007

Visibly and Expertly Done: Criticizing Criticism

During one of my many plane trips this summer, I was catching up on reading. In an issue of The New Yorker from July, I noticed that a review of a translated novel (Christian Jungersen's The Exception) described the book as "invisibly and expertly translated from the Danish by Anna Paterson". What exactly did the reviewer, Jeffrey Frank, mean by this? Was the translation expertly done because it was invisible? Would he have criticized the translation if he had felt it was in some way visible? Did he mean that the translation was both invisible and expert? Mr. Frank, I have learned, is fluent in Danish and has recently translated, together with his wife, The Stories of Hans Christian Andersen: A New Translation from the Danish, so obviously he can compare the source and target texts and also is familiar with the work of translators, all of which makes me wonder if he would like his own translations reviewed as "invisible." What does that term mean to him and to other reviewers of translations?

As I have posted before, critiquing a translation means much more than simply reading it as a text written in the target language and seeing whether you can tell that it was translated, and I wish reviewers, especially at such major magazines as The New Yorker, would start to understand that. I would be curious to know why the idea of "invisibility" persists.

4 comments:

Reed D. James said...

I think that invisible is a good word in association with translators. The less people know about us, the better. If we are invisible, it means we live in a private world and that we are forever kept out of the limelight.

Reed D. James

B.J. Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment. But don't you think that translators should get credit for their work? Sometimes they have been invisible to the point that their names aren't even listed in the book. And, of course, such invisibility can lead to low payment and little respect. So perhaps having a more visible profile could be helpful at times.

Best wishes,
BJ

Maria said...

For me, an invisible translation is one where you are not reminded the original is in a different language, one you read effortlessly -- in fact, a really good translation. This has nothing to do with giving the translators their due credit, quite the contrary.jaopk

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks for your comment, Maria. I think there are two different uses of the idea of not knowing one is reading something that was written in another language. Sure, you don't want to stumble over awkward writing (unless the original was awkward on purpose and the translator is recreating it), but since when I read a translation, I know it was written in another language and comes from another culture, I want to experience that culture as I read the work. So in that sense, I don't want an invisible translation that removes the foreignness (i.e. no domestication of names, locations, idioms, flora and fauna, etc.).

Best wishes,
BJ