Translator Daniel Hahn expresses irritation at the way his work is sometimes regarded:
So what makes me crazy is when the reviewer praises something that I did and gives the impression that I’m not there. By all means compliment the author on the tightness of the plotting, on the deftness of the characterization, and ignore me—they’re supported by my work, of course, but marginally. But a reviewer who thinks he can praise the rhythm, the texture, the beauty of the prose, the warmth and wit of the voice, without acknowledging who’s responsible—as though those things in an author’s original simply reappear automatically after the mechanics of translation have been applied to a text—that’s a reviewer who simply has no understanding of what translation is. There’s a reason the copyright in my translations belongs to me and not the original author. The plot and the ideas and the themes aren’t mine, but the words are, all of them, and the way they all fit together, too.
It seems to me that almost all reviews of translated fiction make the error Hahn is lamenting. They don't stick to what can be discerned of the "plotting" and other structural devices, but move on to make comments about the quality of the prose or the "tone" of voice, without acknowledging that the prose giving rise to the voice has literally been composed by the translator, not the author putatively under review. No doubt some translators do a better job of others at getting us as close as possible to the prose style of the author, but finally the words will be, indeed, the translator's. Too many reviewers make too many facile judgments of translations in which the translation itself drops out, the focus being on features of the author's text the reviewer simply hasn't actually experienced unless that reviewer has read the text in the author's untranslated original.
This is the tragedy of translation: Many of us will read some great books only in their translated versions, and thus we won't finally really know fully what makes them great. It's also possible we might read some rather mediocre books that have actually been made better by their translations.Given the cachet translated fiction seems to have acquired among some readers (its very lack of widespread availability, its lack of attention from the major newspaper book reviews perhaps allowing the devotee of translated fiction to feel one of the enlightened few), I think it likely some translated books of this latter kind are getting more attention than they deserve--under the prevailing circumstances, any new translated work deserves notice. Making authors and their work available through translation is an entirely worthy service, but understanding their limits are also important. We shouldn't make claims about the underlying work--on which the translation is a variation and therefore a new work--we can't possibly validate without in fact reading it.