Posts by Sue Burke

The Tiff: How Should We Review Translations?

Sue Burke and Maia Evrona on the ideal review for a translation—and the tendency to forget the translator entirely.

Sue Burke: The book review said that Angelica Gorodischer “writes poetic, vigorous prose.” Yes, she does. And she doesn’t – that is, I wrote the poetic, vigorous prose.

I’m the translator for Gorodischer’s novel Prodigies, published this year by Small Beer Press. The review was in Kirkus. At least it listed me as the translator and it was favorable, even if it wasn’t ideal.

What would be an ideal review for a translation? While any book review has to cover a lot of ground, at some point I think it ought to explicitly acknowledge that the work being reviewed is a translation and mention its apparent approach, since a translation in some way rewrites the original. If possible, it might compare a passage of the original to the translation and note whether the translation wrestles successfully (or not) with linguistic and cultural challenges, captures its literary quality like elegance or immediacy or wit, and accurately conveys both the meaning and subtext.


Different Beauty, Equal Beauty

Can you translate beauty if it isn't beautiful otherwise?

A Ming Dynasty vase and an ancient Greek urn share beauty but not aesthetics. The artisans of the different styles might have appreciated each other’s work—and yet they might have stuck to their own ways, perhaps because they saw no reason to change or perhaps because they simply lacked the material and equipment to produce anything else.

Languages also have different rules for beautiful prose, based both on cultural inheritance and on the possibilities and limits of each language within its grammar and vocabulary.

I translate Spanish to English, and I often face the delightful task of transforming beautiful Spanish prose into beautiful English prose. To do that, I have had to learn to appreciate the standards of beauty for each language, which share little in common due to different historical trajectories.

Spanish emerged from a local dialect of Latin. King Alfonso X the Wise, who reigned from 1252 to 1284, made Spanish (Castilian, to be precise) the preferred language for scholarship in his realm, replacing Latin. To cement that change, he funded scholars in Toledo and elsewhere to translate literature from other languages into Spanish and to write new books. He himself wrote some important works, knowing that a language must have literature. READ MORE…