An Interview with Reading in Translation’s Lucina Schell
By Lisa Carter, Intralingo Inc.
On the blog Reading in Translation, translators review translated works. Editor Lucina Schell took the time to share more about Reading in Translation and its goals with Intralingo.
Lisa Carter: You were inspired by the PEN American Center Translation Committee‘s work and Words Without Borders’ series “On Reviewing Translations.” When was the moment you decided to create Reading in Translation?
Lucina Schell: A number of things came together to inspire Reading in Translation, which is now two years old. In 2012, I went to a panel on reviewing translations, held at my alma mater The New School, as part of the PEN World Voices Festival, which included translators, publishers and reviewers from major publications. The translators complained that they were rarely mentioned in reviews except critically or in ubiquitous phrases such as “ably translated by…”; reviewers complained about the challenges of evaluating a translation from a language they don’t know or fitting commentary on the translation into strict word count limits; publishers complained that American readers don’t want to read translations, as a justification for not mentioning translators in publicity materials or reviews. We’ve come a little ways since then, thanks in large part to the advocacy work of the PEN American Center Translation Committee’s work, but these conversations remain pertinent.
Around the same time, I had the opportunity to participate in an intimate course taught by Edith Grossman at the 92nd St Y in New York City called Reading Translations. The course focused on comparative analysis of translations from a range of languages, from the Bible and Beowulf, to Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz’s much cited 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei to Spanish and German poetry. The class gave me the confidence to evaluate translations from languages I don’t know and engaged my training as a comparative literature major. As a young translator starting out in the field, I thought, the problem of reviews is an area where I have unique skills to contribute.
I learned about Words Without Borders’ series “On Reviewing Translations” later, and it inspired in part my own series “Tips for Reviewers,” where I reflect on insights gained in the practice of reviewing different types of translations. I plan to continue and expand this series in the next year.
LC: Who did you want to reach when you created Reading in Translation?
LS: Reaching the tight-knit literary translation community is the easy part, as you know. Every contributing reviewer at Reading in Translation is an active literary translator who brings their own network of readers within the industry.
With Reading in Translation, I want to reach the average engaged reader who is not particularly aware of translation or what it contributes to the work they are reading. I want to make readers think about how the translator shapes their reading experience, or simply expose the average reader to literature they might enjoy from other cultures.
Beyond that, I would like Reading in Translation to reach mainstream literary critics, and to demonstrate that critiquing the translation doesn’t have to be difficult for the reviewer or boring for the reader. Ultimately, literary translation is a form of literary criticism that adds layers of complexity to a reader’s understanding of the text rather than taking away from its wholeness.
LC: How do you make sure that these reviews reach the wider public, not just those already interested in translation?
LS: I am always eager to review translations that have been critically neglected, in addition to offering a different or more thorough spin on celebrated translations. The result of this is that Reading in Translation will often have the first or only review of a particular book, which means we come up readily in searches for that title or author. Indeed, because the book title, author and translator’s names are included in every post title, it’s easy to find Reading in Translation’s reviews on the web. This is an asset for a new website building an audience. Many readers find Reading in Translation through Google searches, and I’ve also been heartened to see searches for things like “book title X interpretation” or “analysis,” which indicates to me that students use Reading in Translation to better understand books they’re reading for class.
My Twitter account also ensures that the reviews reach a wide audience. The literary translation and wider literary/writing communities have a lot of cross pollination, and publishers typically have huge Twitter networks, so the reviews get out there. People read Reading in Translation all over the world, which is wonderful to see.
LC: How do you select the books you review?
LS: I read publishers’ catalogs and look ahead at the forthcoming titles (Typographical Era maintains an excellent monthly and yearly “New in Translation” listing). I seek out a diversity of languages/countries and a balance of genres (poetry, fiction and literary nonfiction). Of course, I follow certain translators whose work I admire, and presses in whose taste I am confident, but I am also especially interested in providing exposure to very small or new presses. Many publishers I’ve reviewed for in the past send me unsolicited review copies for consideration. And of course, some of our coverage reflects my personal taste and gravitation toward texts that probe the darker sides of the human experience or push the boundaries of acceptability, and writerly or experimental texts like those of the Oulipo or surrealist movements, for example. Texts that do innovative things with language are the most interesting to discuss from a translation standpoint. From there, it’s a matter of finding a reviewer who is interested in the text. I am always happy to take suggestions from my contributors as well. So, conversely, the only reason a book doesn’t get reviewed, if I’m interested in it, is lack of a qualified or interested reviewer.
LC: How does reviewing books help a literary translator? What do you think they learn? Indeed, what do you learn from reviewing?
LS: One of my favorite statements on reviewing comes from Hebrew translator Aviya Kushner who calls it “literary service.” Basically, if you want good reviews, reviewing others you admire is good karma. Many of my contributors have received very warm responses to their reviews from the translators, and have even established ongoing communication with them.
Translators and publishers are desperate to be reviewed, so if you’re looking for more publication credits to add to your CV, reviewing is an easy way to get published. It’s also a great way to build good will and make connections with publishers who might be interested in your own translation work down the line. Finally, it’s a way to demonstrate your expertise in the language(s) and cultural contexts from which you translate.
Moreover, I think reviewing has made me a better and more confident translator. Getting inside a translation you admire to really see how it’s working is fascinating. It has expanded my toolbox in my own work and encouraged me to take (calculated) risks.
LC: What do you look for in contributors?
LS: First and foremost, all contributors to Reading in Translation are active literary translators themselves, whether published or not. My purpose is to give translators a forum and a voice to be our own advocates when it comes to getting the type of reviews we’d like to see. Beyond that, I look for good writers (and most literary translators are, or should be) and encourage them to analyze the text closely and avoid summary. Often the translators have a background in the source language of the text they’re reviewing, but not always. I try to encourage the contributors, once they’ve gotten a few reviews under their belts, to try reviewing a text from a language they don’t know. Translators are naturally attuned to the nuances of language and can often perceive the challenges another translator faced, even in a language with which they’re not familiar.
LC: What has reaction been to Reading in Translation?
LS: Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, and I’m grateful for the support the site has received from the literary translation community.
LC: What are your plans for the future of Reading in Translation?
LS: I am invested in continuing to grow Reading in Translation to cover a greater diversity of languages, countries and cultures. Now that I happily have many regular contributors, my goal for this year is to post content more consistently. To be able to plan far ahead is a wonderful luxury! I also hope to partner with other literary translation organizations for some new series, so stay tuned for that.
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