Susan Bernofsky, Jonathan Cohen, and Edith Grossman produced these thoughts for reviewers of literary translations, which are cogent enough I thought I’d pass them along:
• Always include the translator’s name in your initial mention of the book and in any bibliographic sidebar.
• If the translation stands out because of its elegance, panache, or daring word choices, by all means say so. If it drags and stumbles, this too is worthy of note, particularly if your conclusions are backed up by examples.
• If the translator has included a note describing his or her approach to the translation, it is useful to summarize the principles mentioned in the statement and to indicate whether the translator’s aims have been achieved.
• When previous translations of a work exist, compare parallel passages so you can indicate the contributions made by the new one.
• If the work of the original author is celebrated for particular literary qualities, it is valuable for the reader to know whether they appear in the translation.
• Most interesting of all for you to consider is this: does the translated work contribute to the literary life of the English language, to our speech, art, and sensibility? In other words, regardless of whether the work is poetry or prose, does the translation expand the boundaries of literary practice in English, introducing new narrative techniques, poetic forms, or modes of telling a story?
Here are two examples of reviews we think are particularly successful at integrating a discussion of the translation into an evaluation of the book under review: Michael Dirda’s review of The Tin Drum by Günter Grass, translated from the German by Breon Mitchell (here); and James Woods’ review of War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy, translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (here).
I share their impatience with reviews that include only “a passing comment like ‘ably translated,'” and I hope their suggestions are listened to. Thanks, Trevor!