In a recent post at his Sentences blog, Wyatt Mason examines a passage from Robert Chandler's translation of Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate and enthuses over its wonders. Although Mason acknowledges that it is a translation, and rightly notes that without it we who have no Russian would have no access to Grossman's writing at all, still, I am reluctant to myself conclude definitively that the quoted passage has precisely the qualities that Mason otherwise ably explicates. Indeed it is a translation, and it is possible the translator has actually improved it in its transformation into English, or made it worse, or in some other way failed to adequately render the original in a way that would dupicate the Russian reader's experience of Grossman's text.
This is not to say that the passage does not have the qualities Mason describes, and certainly not that Chandler's translation is ultimately a failure. I have no way of knowing whether it succeeds or not, and while I am usually willing to take the word of a critic proficient in another language that a given translation is acceptable or not, I am not thereby sufficiently emboldened to approach the text as a critic in the same way I am willing to work with a text written in English. Since I am a critic still attached to "close reading," to examining a work for its stylistic felicities and its formal characteristics, the awareness that with a translated text I am at best confronting it in a second-hand version is enough to warn me away from making any confident assertions about it.
Which is why I concentrate, both on this blog and in my other critical writing, mostly on fiction written in English, even more specifically on American fiction since I feel most able to engage with texts composed in American English (and also with the cultural realities often underlying American language conventions). In a sense I feel I am only capable of making specifically literary judgments on works in English, although I'm relatively certain the kinds of judgments I might make vis-a-vis American fiction are also relevant to fiction written in other languages. I just can't get close enough to such texts to be sure. There are times when the formal invention in an other-language work is evident enough that I can point it out with some confidence my critical eye is appropriately focused--most recently this happened with Magdalena Tulli's Flaw--but generally I stay away from making pronouncements on texts that in a sense I have not really been able to read in their native state.
I recognize that there are some critics fluent enough in second or third languages that they are perfectly reliable close readers of both English-language texts and of literary works in other languages. Unfortunately, the Spanish and French I learned well enough to pass a proficiency exam in graduate school are not good enough to allow me to pretend to read works in those languages other than in translation. This is probably a kind of self-imposed limitation on my range as a critic, but on the other hand I do feel that by restricting my critical commentary to (mostly) American fiction, I am able both to anchor my comments more firmly, and more deeply, in a particular literary tradition and its distinctive practices and to provide a context within which new works can be profitably read. It allows me to, perhaps, speak with somewhat more authority about American writers and writing by demonstrating a familiarity with the enabling assumptions, including assumptions about language, that have characterized American fiction over the long run.
I certainly don't want to imply that translations perform no useful service or that we in the United States need fewer, rather than more, of them. It's a scandal that so comparatively few translated works are made available to American readers and that so comparatively few of those readers seem to be demanding them. Translations allow us an important, if ultimately somewhat cloudy, window on the literary practices of the rest of the world, practices from which both readers and writers can and must learn. But given the haphazard way in which translations come to us (without much useful information about why this writer has been translated or why that writer is important), as well as my professed limitations as a reader of translations, I expect to continue emphasizing them on this blog only periodically.