All those who want more than 4 pages for the Boston Globe Book Review section raise your hand. Even 6 pages would be better. This week is promising though. The fiction/non-fiction ratio is the best I’ve ever seen. And they have some interesting choices. Plus a column that brought tears to my eyes. There’s hope for you yet Globe.
We begin with Diane White’s monthly ‘Pop Lit‘ column, where she discusses ‘new light and popular fiction’. ‘Light’ I get, but ‘Popular’ seems like a weird descriptive term for these books. Not that they aren’t popular, but that it seems to say that other books aren’t popular. Anyhoo, she looks at Love Creeps by Amanda Filipacchi, The Twins of Tribeca by Rachel Pine, and Heavens to Betsy by Beth Pattillo. Now the last book happens to have the same title of a book in a series that my sister and I loved growing up—Betsy, Tacy, and Tib by Maud Hart Lovelace. Too bad that’s not the book White is talking about. Her Heavens to Betsy involves a woman minister’s search for love. next, Gail Caldwell returns to the front page with her long review of Nick Hornby’s new A Long Way Down. Caldwell is a great reviewer, and she makes me almost want to read this book (not a Hornby fan I am afraid).
Daniel Akst reviews The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank by David Plotz on page 2. An odd book, Akst does a nice job examining why this book is worth reading, including its shortcomings. Next to that, Barbara Fisher’s ‘Short Takes‘ column looks at 2 fiction and 1 non-fiction: The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank by Ellen Feldman, Evidence of Love by Melissa McConnell, and Medici Money: Banking, Metaphysics, and Art in Fifteenth Century Florence by Tim Parks. I know it is hard in 3 short paragraphs (which is what I usually allow myself) to convincingly review a book. In my opinion, you need to state what the book is about, what you liked and disliked about it, in brief sentences (this is where I fail) while trying to get the reader interested in the book (or not). I find the ‘Short Takes’ column each week hit-or-miss. Sometimes they work and sometimes they don’t. This week is two out of three. The last review on page 2 is of Leeway Cottage by Beth Gutcheon. Elinor Lipman provides a thorough examination of this new novel, one that I am not familiar with I might add.
Page 3 begins with a column that made me cry. Robin Dougherty, who provided the section with its lovely author interviews, died two weeks ago after complications with breast cancer. The piece provided this week was an unpublished piece she wrote after interviewing Susan Sontag sometime before she died from leukemia. This isn’t an interview. Dougherty, rather, writes about how when speaking with Sontag, she loses control of the interview, how they both have/had cancer, how she tries to retain some of her journalistic skills. “I glance at the clock. In one part of my mind, I am aware that I must get the interview back on track. I have five more minutes and several critical questions left to ask. The other half of my mind is thinking, ‘Omigod, Susan Sontag is interviewing me. She is telling me things she doesn’t tell every journalist. How can I possibly interrupt?” The whole piece is beautiful, showing how something so awful can cause a bond between two strangers. Read it.
The last review on page 3 is actually coverage of 4 books on bees. Author Joan Wickersham looks at Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey—the Sweet Liquid Gold That Seduced the World by Holley Bishop, Sweetness and Light: The Mysterious History of the Honeybee by Hattie Ellis, Letters From the Hive: An Intimate History of Bees, Honey, and Humankind by Stephen Buchmann, and Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation. Whew, that’s a lot of books on bees. Too bad Wickersham’s reviews seems to abruptly end. I checked all over thinking it must be continued on the next page. No. She seems to like them all and spends most of the space with overview. There’s no conclusions. Nothing.
‘For Children‘ by Liz Rosenberg takes a look at some nature books for kids. Below is one of the stars of this section, Katherine Powers and her ‘On Reading‘ column. This week she discusses making oneself heard. She brings up Homegrown Democrat: A Few Plain Thoughts from the Heart of America by Garrison Keillor, A Northern Front: New and Selected Essays by John Hildebrand, and The Gods Drink Whiskey: Stumbling Toward Enlightenment in the Land of the Tattered Buddha by Stephen Asma. The last book, Powers did not like, and it is refreshing to hear someone express an opinion. The review closes with Antony Stugaar’s review of The Almond Picker by Simonetta Agnello Hornby. Apparently the translator Alastair McEwen did a poor job, not allowing for the differences in expressions from Italian to English. It’s too bad, since the book sounds pretty interesting. But it is hard to really enjoy a badly translated book, no matter how well-written it is. It was also nice to see a book in translation amongst these pages.
This was a good week for the Globe. Many nice, thorough reviews. A good ratio of fiction to non-fiction. The wonderful column from Doughtery. This is what the Globe can do when it tries—that it doesn’t each week I find frustrating. In a city famous for its universities, I feel that the caliber of the review section should be better. In an area with so many learned people—students, professors, professionals, everyone—-aren’t we hungry for more books reviews? Aren’t you tired that you have to turn to the NYT Book Review or some other publication for more? So I ask for everyone to raise their hands if you agree with me. I know review space is hard to get, the editors don’t think that people are interested in reading books anymore. Well, I say they are wrong. I am not sure what I can do, but maybe no one has demanded loud enough yet to get results. So comment here or email bookdwarf at bookdwarf dot com.
You wrote, and I quote:
“The review closes with Antony Stugaar’s review of The Almond Picker by Simonetta Agnello Hornby. Apparently the translator Alastair McEwen did a poor job, not allowing for the differences in expressions from Italian to English. It’s too bad, since the book sounds pretty interesting. But it is hard to really enjoy a badly translated book, no matter how well-written it is. It was also nice to see a book in translation amongst these pages.”
It is indeed hard to enjoy reading a badly translated book. It is even harder to read that a book is badly translated on the basis of one man’s opinion. I would have found what you had to say more acceptable had you also mentioned the opinions of other critics, such as James Marcus in the LA Times or GraceAnne De Candido of The Amercan Library Association or VIEWPOINTS: punti di vista di italiani in America, or a bunch of other critics whose opinion of the translation was radically from Mr. Shugaar’s.
I have alredy written to the Globe on this matter, but have received no response and so, once again, I should like to attempt to exercise my right of reply.
First of all, let me say that I wholly disagree about the “flatness” and “uninspired translation” that Mr. Shugaar sees throughout the book. But, and in fairness to Mr. Shugaar, I should like to point out something that he was perforce completely unaware of: the strange genesis of this book.
My original brief was to translate the book into the US flavour of English, which I did. Then, only a few weeks before the deadline, senior management at the US publishers – after talks with their British partners – asked me to transform the entire text into British English.
I was unhappy about this for, as a translator like Mr. Shugaar must know, this is a far, far more complex matter than merely transforming elevators into lifts and pants into trousers.
And it takes time, time that was desperately short.
The funny thing is that Mr. Shugaar seems to have seen no trace of this transformation, which not only testifies to the excellent work of the editors but is also a source of no small consolation to me: for the risks of such an operation are indeed great.
Talking of editors, my problems were further compounded by the fact that – in the proof stage – I was obliged to work with a good three of them: one at FSG in New York, another at Penguin in London, another at Penguin Australia. All experts, of course, but all experts with different points of view about style and the art of translation. The author, too, had her own suggestions to make.
That said, however, I find it strange that no less than 4 expert readers (and here I include the author, who is bilingual) failed to find a trace of all this “flatness” that Mr. Shugaar complains of. Almost as strange as the fact that other reviewers with a knowledge of the original language had only complimentary things to say about the translation.
But, of course, you cannot please all of the people all of the time.
Let it be clear that I am not trying to shift any responsibility onto those who worked so hard to make this a better book. What I am saying is that a handful of allegedly lame expressions in a work of over 83 thousand words authorizes no one to talk about “uninspired translation”.
On the subject of these allegedly lame expressions, I would like to point out that, in some of those places where Mr. Shugaar felt that “the Italian seemed to be dictating the translator’s words”, this was often a deliberate decision aimed at adding a soupçon of “foreignness” to the text (I don’t subscribe to the notion that books in translation should always read as if they were written originally in English).
By way of example, Mr. Shugaar maintains that “when a character asks ‘May I offer you something?’ (such flat prose) what he really meant was ‘Can I buy you a drink?'”. In my view – in this specific case – the point is highly debatable. The character in question is a sober, almost pathologically reserved type who is talking to the parish priest, and they go to the bar for a water-ice. And they drink water with it, not Manhattans. The Anglo-American drinking culture is quite alien to Sicilian culture of the early sixties.
At another point Mr. Shugaar notes: “At a crucial moment, early in the book, the doctor hands over to the family a sealed envelope entrusted to him by the dying woman. One of the daughters says: ‘It’ll be the will.’ A great deal is riding on this document, and the response is clearly one of urgent interest, and yet, instead of ‘That must be the will!’ or ‘Maybe that’s her will!’ or ‘Could it be the will?’ the translator has chosen an odd, offhand diction. Which perfectly mirrors the original Italian structure”
Indeed it does. And at first sight the critic would seem to have a point; yet, while the Italian language offers equivalent versions of all of the critic’s suggestions, the author of the book nonetheless went for a fairly low-key expression, which is neither odd, nor offhand. The author’s intention is to introduce a note of growing hysteria, as is evinced by the dialogues that follow immediately after. And to obtain a crescendo you have to start off on a lower key and then work your way up.
Of course, if Mr. Shugaar had been less intent on slating the translation, he might have taken this into consideration.
In closing, I would like to add that it is somewhat irritating to see a text that cost thousands of hours of hard work dismissed in this somewhat cavalier fashion, especially when the critic is a colleague who should have the good grace and sensitivity to avoid employing the kind of criticism that, who knows, may one day be directed at the fruits of thousands of hours of his own work.