Monday, May 20, 2013

When the translator is recommendation enough

The Goodreads group Loosed in Translation has a discussion I only just noticed, essentially asking members whether they've ever read a book because it was translated by someone specific. Short answer? Yes. But alas, short answers utterly lack the complexities that we seek here in the book blogging world. And so the long answer: yes, but usually as a crossover between my Hebrew and English reading. Does this make sense?

Here's how it goes. Last year I read 46 books that were not originally written in English. 13 of those books were originally in Hebrew, which was also the language I read them in. An additional 11 were books originally written in non-English languages that I read in translations into Hebrew. The remaining 22 were read in translations into English. In a lot of cases, I read a book in Hebrew versus English because of availability - for example, Halldor Laxness is available in Hebrew only through rather awkward double translations from Icelandic. Or alternatively, Christian Signol's Un Matin sur la Terre has not even been translated into English.

But then there are times I choose to read a translation in Hebrew or in English exactly because of a specific translator. Take Philippe Claudel, for example. I've mentioned before that I have a clear preference for the translations into Hebrew versus into English. It's obvious that I will wait a little longer to read Claudel's other works in Hebrew, just so I can enjoy what I find to be a superior translation.

There's an interesting flip side to this as well. Being a native English speaker, I obviously don't read English books translated into Hebrew. But I do take note of their translators. There are certain English-to-Hebrew translators whose tastes I like, and who have a knack for capturing the feel of a certain novel so strongly that I'll actively look into what other books they've translated, if only to get some good recommendations of books to read in English.

Does it seem like this post is heavily skewed towards Hebrew translators? It should. The Hebrew book market is significantly smaller than the Anglo one - it's surprisingly simple to learn about the most prolific translators, and it's even easier to gain an appreciation for them after face-to-face meetings (at events like HBL) or correspondences. I can't think of any to-English translators who I actively follow the way I have to-Hebrew ones, but I'm gradually learning. It'll be interesting to see how I answer this questions a few years down the line...


  1. Victoria Cribb from the Icelandic (e.g. Sjón), Margaret Jull Costa from Spanish and Portuguese (e.g. Marías and Samarago) - and probably several others ;)

  2. I don't follow any translators, but knowing that something has been translated by Edith Grossman or Margaret Jull Costa will push it up the TBR a little bit :-) I'll be interested to know how my answer might change in a few years too!

  3. I've just recently started to notice translators (I've read translated fiction before but never enough to note any other usages), and I know I've read a couple by Margaret Jull Costa. It might of course be due to the book itself, but if the writing in a book is particularly nice I would definitely opt for the same translator again, given a choice, even if they weren't necessarily favoured for that particular book.

  4. I notice a lot of the same names popping up in the translations I read, mostly from Italian or Russian to English. Peavear-Volokhonsky is a well-known pair; Antony Shugaar translates a lot of the Italian lit I read, and I like most of the books so I guess I like his style. I don't look for his books (or anyone's really) but it's interesting to see them do different kinds of things. I think Shugaar must be good just because he seems to be in such high demand!

  5. Anthea Bell, especially from German and especially when dealing with Children's Literature. She is superb.


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