Monday, September 2, 2019

The Utopian Literary World of Michele A. Berdy

In her August 14th article in The Moscow Times entitled “If I Were Queen of Translation Reviews”, Michele A. Berdy prides herself on her tone, a “rant”. It’s actually closer to a myopic, supercilious, ungenerous clusterfuck (ironically) against the very translators and (especially) original authors she professes to champion. But it’s especially ungenerous towards the potential readers of those works.

After an off-topic, current hard-times ground state that’s supposed to lend justification for the “rant” – I suppose, in hopes that sheer outraged tone is to override any points that may be challenged – Berdy begins with rule #1 of “Those Banned From Reviewing” with “Someone who doesn’t know the language of the original. Duh, right?” Actually, duh, wrong. Her only reasoning is that “I mean, would you ask me to review a translation of book (sic) of Chinese poetry if I didn’t know Chinese?” The answer: it depends. I want the reviewer, above all, to be a passionate and knowledgeable reader of poetry, and to write well. Knowing the source language is certainly a help, but often not a prerequisite, and highly dependent on the review’s context. Who is it written for? What publication is it in? What are the writer’s particular reviewing parameters, either self-imposed or determined in advance by the editors/publisher? Is the review a retrospective on a work or works, or, especially, on the author? (In the latter case, even a glancing knowledge of the original material isn’t needed.) And why stop there? By extension, her draconian measures should encompass transfers of jargon, argot, idiom, and dialect. Imagine the audacity of a transatlantic English speaking reviewer presuming to opine on the untranslated Irish brogue of Paul Durcan!

Further, if reviewers (and publishers) acceded to Berdy’s dicta, readers wouldn’t even know of many original works in their conversant language of the received translation, let alone come across opinions, story outlines, broad judgments, and on and on. Scholarly work, including tonal faithfulness and nuanced assessments of word choice? Sure, but most reviews don’t have that as a mandate, and a good thing it is. How many reviewers, often working for free or for a pittance, even if they are fluent in the original, are going to spend hours tracking down the context and probability of use for a now archaic phrase that has a muddied philological history? And how many of that reduced number are (e.g.) fluent in both Burmese and English, know the back catalogue of the original author (another of many of the Queen’s requirements), and are intimately familiar with the political and cultural milieu in which, say, the particular novel takes place? Would you give double-digits-to-one odds that the number is close to zero? I would.

Berdy royally waves away anyone who would presume to review translations without knowing the source language, but how about the many translators who actually go German-to-English with no more extensive vocabulary than ja and nein? This happens frequently, and in poetry, not ‘just’ non-fiction tomes, with lauded results.

There are many other ‘prerequisites’, in the article, from Her Highness, but from what I’ve outlined here, the procedure is already unworkable and needlessly restrictive.