Who Gets to Review? Tranströmer, Ishiguro, and Critical Expertise

The day Tomas Tranströmer died, I read a “squabble” between several literary men over the accuracy and authenticity of Robin Robertson’s translations of Tranströmer. Robin Fulton, another translator of his poetry, accuses Robertson of a kind of soft plagiarism, and Alan Brownjohn, who had reviewed Robertson’s translations favorably in the Times Literary Supplement, of failing to identify the problems with the work:

An excessively large number of Robertson’s lines are identical to mine in my Tranströmer translations (as published by Bloodaxe, and New Directions): elsewhere, wittingly or unwittingly, Robertson makes arbitrary changes to the Swedish, a language he does not seem to understand. His versions are neither dependable translations nor independent imitations: they show a cavalier disregard for Tranströmer’s texts and I have yet to see a reviewer able or willing to say so.

The Scottish poet W. S. Milne then writes in to point out that “Robin Robertson is hardly the first poet to make ‘arbitrary changes’ in his versions from a foreign language. The most famous (or perhaps notorious?) case is that of Robert Lowell in his Imitations of 1961.” Fulton’s response: “If only Robertson had vandalized Tranströmer in the way Lowell vandalized his originals the results might have been interesting, but a version which tinkers with only a word or phrase here and there hardly begins to be an imitation — it reads only like a translation with hiccups.” This goes on for a bit. On Twitter, a poet and translator I follow suggested that perhaps works in translation should be reviewed by translators.

That night over dinner I asked my husband what he knew about the Tranströmer controversy, since the magazine he edits had published two translations by Robertson. We talked about the difficulty of even assessing either side of the argument, if one doesn’t speak Swedish. At the very least, you’d need to make a careful comparison between translations on a poem to poem basis. We do not speak Swedish, and we had not done so. Nonetheless, we both resolutely agreed that Robertson’s translations were not very good; they were pedestrian.

Several years ago, on my blog, I compared two versions of a Rainer Maria Rilke poem, “Portrait of My Father as a Young Man,” one translated by Stephen Mitchell and the other by Edward Snow. I strongly prefer the Mitchell translation, which to my mind makes more felicitous choices throughout, but the impact is most felt in the final couplet. The Mitchell translation, which I read first, ends: “Oh quickly disappearing photograph / in my more slowly disappearing hand.” Beautiful, right? The Snow translation: “O you swiftly fading daguerreotype / in my more slowly fading hands.” What Rilke would have held (if we are to assume the poem is based on real experience) was probably a daguerreotype, but “photograph” is more immediate, and “disappearing” is so much more ominous than “fading.” A “fading memory” is a cliché; we may fear the slow fade to death, but not as much as our ultimate disappearance.

A language scholar commented on the post to tell me that “Mitchell’s translation, like all other English translations of Rilke except Snow’s, is poetically ‘beautiful’ — beautified, falsified, conventionalized and dull — anything but Rilke” and that if I wanted to appreciate Rilke I should “LEARN GERMAN” (emphases his). I dismissed this idea as absolutely silly; I’m not going to ignore all work translated from languages I don’t speak. But in truth, I have thought about his comment for years.

Who gets to translate? And who gets to review translations? There’s a tradition of poets translating from languages they don’t speak fluently, with the aid of a fluent assistant and/or a dictionary; I’ve done it myself. On some level, I feel that it’s more important to be “fluent,” not just conversationally fluent but poetically fluent, in the receiving language. I don’t believe poetry is “what’s lost in translation,” but a technically faithful translation could end up being a terrible poem in English. Edmund Wilson famously detested Vladimir Nabokov’s translation of Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, an extremely literal translation that abandons the original’s intricate form. Wilson calls this exercise an act of “perversity” and “torture” that arises from a “desire both to suffer and make suffer.”

My husband said he tends to demur from reviewing translations, at least of poetry. (Less so with novels, where there is less intense focus on individual word choice and poetic effects like cadence, which aren’t typically expected to be maintained in translation.) It seems like the right thing to do; if you don’t know the poet’s original work, what are you reviewing? But when you whittle the already small pool of poetry critics down to those who are multilingual or translators themselves, the result is that hardly anyone reviews translations, and in turn fewer people read them. If nobody reads poetry, less than nobody reads international poetry.

I was thinking about all this while sitting in the audience of a live interview with Kazuo Ishiguro, in an auditorium at the University of Colorado, Denver. During the reception beforehand, I chatted with a few people about the critical reception so far of his new novel, The Buried Giant. The reviews have been mixed at best. But I find that I don’t trust many reviewers with an Ishiguro novel. Ursula Le Guin initially called it failed fantasy (“It was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, ‘Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?’”) but she has since retracted her comment. Michiko Kakutani, in the New York Times, calls it an “eccentric, ham-handed fairy tale with a jumble of story lines” that fails “to create a persuasive or fully imagined fictional world.” This may be true; I haven’t read it yet. However, the response was similar to The Unconsoled, though with less “it’s a failed mixture of genres” and more “WTF even is this.” The Unconsoled could fairly be called eccentric and jumbled; certainly the world it creates is not “persuasive” in the sense of feeling anything like the real world. But it succeeds in creating, through fiction, the exact sensation of a long, bad dream; while you’re reading it, the anxiety is almost unbearable, though it’s clear that nothing (as in any novel!) is actually at stake. It’s a fascinating experiment. Whether or not any one reader likes it seems beside the point.

Who should review Ishiguro? His novels frequently incorporate elements of fantasy or science fiction without committing fully to the conventions of those genres. Is it better or worse, when picking up an Ishiguro book, to have expertise in fantasy and science fiction? Could that expertise actually prejudice you against the work? In theory expertise should help. It should also help to have knowledge of Japanese folk tales, of post-war exile, of collective consciousness, of the science of memory. I know a little about neuroscience; does it help? I suppose it only helps if you’re sympathetic in the first place to the author’s intentions. It doesn’t help if you come to it wanting either a faithful representation of the world as it is, or a fully imagined fictional world, instead of something in between, a world full of holes. Your eyes don’t collect all the information necessary to rebuild the world in your head; it would be a waste of resources. Instead they collect just enough data to get a sketch, and your mind fills in the rest. (Obviously, there’s a wall over there, and a ceiling above us.) Ishiguro seems interested in allowing us to experience that world in the middle, between the outside reality we have no direct access to, and the internal world, with all our assumptions comfortably in place.

There was another literary kerfuffle recently when Stephin Merritt (best known as the principal singer/songwriter in The Magnetic Fields) wrote a tetchy, dismissive review of two novels for The Tournament of Books. Again, the role of expertise comes into question — does it matter, in this context (a silly bracket tournament for books, not a serious review outlet) that Merritt is not an expert lit critic? He’s coming to the books, and offering his opinion, as the storied “general intelligent reader.” But the tone feels off because it’s abutting against similar pieces from writers and editors with a lot more exposure to published criticism — it wouldn’t stand out in a stream of Goodreads or Amazon reviews, where one man’s impressionistic opinion is as good as any other’s. The best critics do more than explain why they liked or didn’t like a book; they try to understand books, and show other readers, by example, how to read and think about those books. Specialized expertise can work in service of that goal, but is probably not as important as a willingness to attempt to be a work’s most thoughtful reader.

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