How Should We Review Translations? Part I

A review is seriously lacking if it ignores a book’s translated nature.

Today marks the start of our forum on the question of how we should review translations. Along with a general introduction by Criticism Editor Ellen Jones, this first installment contains contributions from Bilal Hashmi and Sophie Lewis. Drawing our attention to what something as simple as a question mark might signal, Hashmi alerts us to the importance of openness when engaging with translated texts, and Lewis helps us envision what the potential participants and platforms in a healthy reviewing ecology would look like. You’ll find more reflections, recommendations, and reconsiderations here on Wednesday and Thursday.

In July of this year Asymptote published a review of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror, translated from the Korean by Jiwon Shin, Lauren Albin, and Sue Hyon Bae, with contributions from Rebecca Teague, Dakota Hale, Kevin Salter, Sierra Hamel, and Nicole Lindell (Action Books, 2019). The review, written by translator Matt Reeck, sparked some heated discussion on Twitter on account of the questions it asked about the poems’ “Koreanness” and the visibility of that “Koreanness” in translation. A conversation began about the need for more reviewers of colour, and about the usefulness of concepts like “world literature” and “national literatures” in reviews of this kind. A factual mistake was pointed out and subsequently corrected, but it remained clear that some disapproved of the review’s tone and perspective. In writing about Kim’s poetry, Reeck attempts to interrogate his own position as a US-based reader and all the assumptions he therefore brings to a work translated from Korean; nevertheless, the review was seen to perpetuate and privilege those narrow assumptions.

A couple of months down the line, we want to make sure that those who criticised Reeck’s review know that they have been heard, and that as a result of those conversations, Asymptote has a renewed commitment to considering the political and ethical implications of the articles it publishes. As part of that commitment, we want to provide a more formal space to continue discussing the important questions raised in responses to the review. We have therefore invited a series of writers to contribute to a forum on reviewing translations, including Reeck himself, two of Kim Hyesoon’s translators (Sue Hyon Bae and Lauren Albin), two editors at Action Books (Katherine Hedeen and Johannes Göransson), and others who have elsewhere written incisively on this very topic (Sophie Lewis and Bilal Hashmi). These contributions will be featured here on the blog over the coming days as part of the journal’s ongoing dedication not just to the exchange of literature through translation but also to the circulation of ideas about translation.

For my part, as I put the finishing touches to my final issue as Criticism Editor of Asymptote after five years in the role, I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect a little on what I’ve learned from the response to this review and from my work for Asymptote more broadly, as the Criticism section moves into a new phase of its existence with a new editor—Sam Carter—at its helm.

Asymptote takes pride in the diversity of its content, and rightly so. It has published work from 121 countries and 103 different languages. But, like all endeavours, it is by no means perfect—something which has become clear to me as I have reflected on my own contribution to its content over recent years.

When I started as Criticism Editor in 2014, I knew relatively little about what challenges the role would present, nor in fact about the literary translation book market itself. Since then I’ve shepherded just shy of a hundred reviews and essays to publication in this journal. I’ve been lucky to count on the support and advice of some very astute colleagues—our tireless Editor-in-Chief Lee Yew Leong in particular—who have acted as sounding boards and as invaluable extra sets of eyes on numerous occasions. But I’ve also had the privilege to publish a lot of very talented and experienced writers, including our trusted contributing editors Dylan Suher, Aamer Hussein, and Adrian Nathan West, as well as external contributors like Deborah Smith, Peter Mitchell, and Stiliana Milkova, who not only made my task as editor very easy indeed, but also taught me a huge amount about how to read and write well. Working with them has honed my understanding of what it means to write thoughtfully and carefully about another person’s work.

That being said, I did not realise, when I first took on the role, the extent to which the Criticism section would be subject to the numerous inequalities that shape the literary community. Unlike other parts of the journal, which can do the work of featuring new writers in our pages, the Criticism section is at the mercy of what publishers decide to put out into the world. We cannot review a book of poems by a Sub-Saharan African writer or a bestseller from South East Asia if those books are not published in English in the first place. Given that Asymptote is also unable to pay its contributors—the journal relies entirely on donations and volunteers to keep it running—our pool of potential contributors is also smaller than that of many publications, reduced to those who can afford to write without compensation. If we take into account the gender pay gap, and the fact that women do as much as 75% of the world’s unpaid care work, it is unsurprising that this has led to a gender disparity among those who have reviews published in our pages.

I have always been careful to maintain some diversity in the work I select for the section each quarter, in terms of a book’s original language and place of publication as well as its genre and author’s gender. I’m proud to have published reviews of translations from thirty-two different languages and from across six continents. But this care has not always been enough to avoid reflecting inequalities in the industry more broadly. For instance, only six of the nearly one hundred books reviewed on my watch were written by African writers. A whole 17% were translated either from Spanish or French. Moreover, only 16% were books of poetry rather than prose (a situation Katherine Hedeen of Action Books talks more about in her contribution to this forum, noting that reviewing poetry is an “act of defiance, disobedience, subversion”). I’m proud to have published reviews by renowned writers like David Bellos, Daniel Hahn, and Boyd Tonkin; I’m decidedly not proud to have discovered, looking back over our archives to the start of 2014, that exactly two thirds of contributors to the Criticism section were men, and that close to two thirds of the authors reviewed were men.

I find this last realisation particularly depressing. How could I have let this happen, especially despite all the excellent work movements like #WITMonth (Women in Translation Month) have done to raise the profile of female writers from non-English speaking parts of the world? Three of our contributing editors are men, so that might have something to do with the problem, but it’s certainly not the whole story. I ask myself what role my own unconscious bias has played in creating this state of affairs. Do I instinctively trust pitches from men more than I trust pitches from women? Do I assume books by men are more deserving of our review space? And what action can I (and others) take to overcome that bias?

As a gatekeeper in the literary community, Asymptote has a responsibility to ask these questions, and to ask them publicly. We have a responsibility to interrogate our own practices on an ongoing basis, to recognise that decolonisation differs from diversity work, and to remain engaged in broader conversations about power relations and especially, of course, about the role of English—the journal’s main language—in producing inequalities in the access to and production of cultural capital. 

I am proud to have been part of reflections of this kind on numerous occasions over the past five years—Stephanie Boland’s examination of Irish language politics in her review of Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s Graveyard Clay and The Dirty Dust, for instance; Adrian Nathan West’s distinction between a serious engagement with the literary traditions of so-called “peripheral” countries and a lazier “tokenism that perpetuates, beneath the trappings of multiculturalism, the patterns of privilege and deprivation it alleges to address,” in his review of Crude Words: Contemporary Writing from Venezuela; and, yes, this collection of responses to the publication of Matt Reeck’s review of Kim Hyesoon’s A Drink of Red Mirror. I look forward to seeing how this conversation expands and develops in the Criticism section in years to come.

— Ellen Jones


Whenever I pick up a review of a translation and see its text punctuated by three, four, five question marks, the gesture serves to remind me precisely of those ambiguities and possibilities—the contradictions, mysteries, wonders—that draw me to a work of literature in the first place. It suggests to me also that the reviewer (however many times removed) is on the same page, which is to say the piece exudes a measure of self-reflexivity; for even the most autobiographical of translated tomes can scarcely account for its own genesis, let alone how it might be read—when, where, and by whom. Herein, perhaps, lies the great quandary in reviewing translations: how to appear rhetorical, but also come off as open-ended. 

— Bilal Hashmi


Reviews of translated books have a double purpose. In addition to describing and recommending (or warning against) the books, they should also do this for their translations, assuming always that the latter could have been quite different and that there may be different translations to come. A review is seriously lacking if it ignores a book’s translated nature—not only for the sake of the translator’s reputation but, much more seriously, for readers’ understanding of the book.

The original book and its new translation being always the same object creates a delicate task for the reviewer: how to describe the nature of the book behind the translation and what can be said for sure about the nature of the translation? Reviewers who neither know the source language nor have read the source text must tread carefully. They may respond to an ethical impulse to admit as much. Their strength and appropriateness as a reviewer may come from other expertise—from their knowledge of other books in a relevant canon, from knowledge of this region, of this period, of this topic, these concerns… All are admissible. And considerable! It’s a position of strength to read a translated book as a reader with no preparation might read it—just as some translators deliberately write their first draft without reading the book beforehand, so that they’ll react to the text as a first-time reader, similarly a reviewer may approach a foreign book as simply a book and describe the impressions it gives. Nonetheless, to ignore questions of the translation’s strengths or weaknesses without saying why you can’t take a position on them is to shortchange the potential reader: it is a deception. 

Reviewers who do know the source language and even the source text should be marshalling that knowledge in the service of readers who don’t. It falls to them to describe the nature of a book in its original language and to distinguish the job done by the translator. There are few reviewers out there who regularly get such commissions. Tim Parks, Julian Barnes, and Marina Warner do. Nick Lezard too, although he doesn’t often get the essay-length articles the previous three do, so his mentions of translators and translations can be brief and cramped. Are these reviewers’ elite profiles underpinned by their—unnecessary—qualifications as successful original authors? Probably. Even so, the work these few reviewers do is valuable. I am happy to read a detailed comparison of translations of Madame Bovary by Barnes because I want to know which one to choose and I trust him to explain the differences to me, even if I disagree with his taste. I am less happy reading a detailed description of a recent translation of Elsa Morante’s Arturo’s Island by Parks because his final words make it clear that I should not rely on either extant translation for my access to Morante’s brilliant work. But I am glad to follow Parks’s reasoning to this conclusion—I know which books not to buy.

Not all reviewers can have this space or familiarity with the material they are reviewing. But I still demand some criticism, some contextualising work, specific to the translated nature of the book at hand. I want to know the basics about the translator’s style or approach. Perhaps there are keys to the work in a translator’s note. If so, I hope the reviewer will share them. Perhaps the translator will be one of the few who are almost household names. There seems to be a trend among some of these to a pronounced, even extreme source-text devotion. Goldstein, Davis, Pevear, and Volokhonsky, at least, all appear to take this approach. As a reader, I would like to learn that this approach has been taken, so I can understand the nature of the beast I am considering taking to the beach or on my commute. 

As a translator, I am fascinated by reviews of translations. And I always feel a thrill when my work is specifically mentioned, though it never has been at any length. I’ve yet to receive a bad review—I’m sure that will come one day and it will hurt. But reviews are not for translators. In the interest of a healthy reviewing ecology, we need to appreciate the work of expert reviewers who may criticise translations. It isn’t the case that damning a bad translation implies that all translations are dodgy or faulty or not good enough. If you sometimes explain how one is bad, readers are more likely to believe you when you celebrate the good ones.

And to return to that ‘healthy reviewing ecology’, we’re certainly in the grip of climate change. As printed papers and their review space dwindle, so new spaces, especially aural and online ones, are springing up. Words without Borders and Asymptote deserve special mention. And there are many valiant bloggers who keep the literary world from absolutely rusting away on its poles. But the new simply don’t marshal the funds of the old. Most of them don’t pay anything like the rates the old ones do or used to—or indeed pay nothing at all. No wonder there are so few linguistically qualified reviewers with time to read two books to every one read by your average reviewer and then write their thoughts up in detail. No wonder I could only cite expert reviewers publishing in those old-guard fortresses the London Review of Books and New York Review of Books. New reviewers are emerging but it will take a while and a lot of luck before they can command the space and payment that would make reviewing a worthwhile use of their working day. In the meantime, we must be forgiving towards reviewers who don’t have all the languages we might wish.

— Sophie Lewis

Bilal Hashmi is Associate Publisher at Quattro Books (Toronto) and the Membership Secretary of the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada/Association des traducteurs et traductrices littéraires du Canada. His annotated English translation of Flight, ʻAzīz Aḥmad’s 1945 modernist Urdu novel, is due out with McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2020.

Ellen Jones is a researcher, editor, and translator from Spanish. She writes about multilingualism and contemporary Latin American literature, including for publications like The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and The Irish Times. Her translation of Rodrigo Fuentes’s short story collection Trout, Belly Up is published by Charco Press (2019) and her translation of Bruno Lloret’s novel Nancy is forthcoming from Giramondo Publishing (2020).

Sophie Lewis is an editor and translator. Previously Europe manager at Dalkey Archive Press and senior editor at And Other Stories, she is currently managing editor at The Folio Society. She translates from French and Portuguese, and has translated Stendhal, Verne, Marcel Aymé, Violette Leduc, Emmanuelle Pagano, Olivia Rosenthal, Leïla Slimani, Sheyla Smanioto and João Gilberto Noll, among others. Her translation of Emilie de Turckheim’s novel Héloïse is Bald received the 2016 Scott Moncrieff Prize commendation. In 2018, her translation of Noémi Lefebvre’s Blue Self-Portrait was shortlisted for the Scott Moncrieff and Republic of Consciousness prizes. In 2016, she co-founded Shadow Heroes, a workshops series for students on critical thinking through translation:


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