What Makes a Good Translated Book Review?
In the second of our blog posts about reviewing translated books, to go alongside the launch of our Reading Chinese Book Review Network, more of the translators we’ve worked with on the project have shared their thoughts on what makes a good review of a translated book.
‘I think reviews of translations need to discuss the fact that the book is translated, but not to dwell too long on that. Note early on that it’s a translation, and name the translator, but a review is still a review of the novel in question, and in order to be relevant to ordinary readers it needs to approach the book as the ordinary reader (by which I mean someone not particularly invested in the language or culture in question) would approach it. If the reviewer is capable of providing a little extra information about the background of the book and its author, that’s great. If the reviewer is capable of commenting on the quality of the translation, that’s also a really nice addition. But I would still want to see the book reviewed primarily on its own merits, as other books are reviewed.’
Eric Abrahamsen – translator and publisher of Paper Republic
‘Good writing is contrapuntal: there are usually several things going on at the same time. A description of the weather might simultaneously reveal some crucial information about the setting; a dive into the protagonist’s emotions can also propel the plot forwards. I believe the same applies to a good book review. Tell me the details of the author’s biography while you show me what makes his or her voice distinctive. Teach me about the big ideas at the heart of the book while you unpick the storyline. Don’t compartmentalise. And that applies to the translation, too: an awareness of the translator’s work should be threaded through the entire review, and not just isolated in a parenthetical paragraph, sentence, or adverb.’
Dave Haysom – translator and editor of Pathlight Magazine
‘I agree strongly re. threading an awareness of the the translator’s work throughout the review. I know it can be challenging if the reviewer hasn’t read the original, but a token adverb attached to the translator’s name at the end can grate a little (even if I am very pleased they’ve been named) — I guess I always want to know why the reviewer thinks something’s been translated excellently, luminously, clunkily etc.
Also, this can be controversial, but I like comparisons! Especially when it comes to authors I might not have much context for. Not if they’re forced or untrue, obviously — I probably don’t mean “XX is China’s answer to Kafka” etc — but if there are specific reasons why elements of a story or writer’s style resonate with something I’m likely to be familiar with (be it a book, author, film, tv series), I think it can be helpful.’
Natascha Bruce – translator (and one of the winners of our first Bai Meigui Translation Competition)
If this has inspired you, and you’d like to get involved with our Book Review Network, you can apply here. Or if you’re looking for somewhere to start with Chinese fiction, check out our Bookclub page, where we’re putting up ‘flash reviews’ of our monthly stories by our book reviewers, and tweeting about them using the hashtag #goodchinesereads.