Are Translators Ventriloquists?

On Reviewing Literary Translations

by Eric Fishman

Literary translators love to gripe that critics neglect their work. Peruse any online forum for translators and you’ll come across exchanges in which we vie with one another for the coveted title of most painful review, featuring entrants from reviews that neglect to mention that the work is translated at all, to patronizing single-phrase mentions of the translator, to “gotcha” reviews, where a critic will choose a single sentence to check in the source language—completely out of context—and determine that the translator has not done a word-for-word translation.

As a translator myself, of course I share these frustrations. Translation is a subtle art, and translators deserve to be evaluated for their craftsmanship alongside authors. Yet reviewers who neglect to discuss the translation do a disservice not only to the translator, but also to the author and the reader. Critics have an obligation to engage with the translated nature of books they review.

Metaphors for translation abound in both popular and scholarly discourse, but I recently came across one that surprised me, because it was in the midst of a review of an American novel, written in English (John Wray’s Godsend). James Wood, in discussing how Wray depicts the speech of Afghan characters, asserts the following:

Wray might see his task as very much that of a translator . . . He must decide what would constitute respectful ventriloquism, and what would constitute brash overreach.

At first, Wood’s metaphor of “translator as ventriloquist” makes sense. The translator is attempting to embody the voice of the author, “performing” the text for the target language audience. But the comparison soon turns strange. The task of the ventriloquist is to create the impression that the puppet is alive, by both secretly manipulating the puppet’s mouth and body as well as “throwing” their voice to make the puppet appear to talk. Ventriloquists are illusionists, animating a lifeless figure with their hands and voice. The puppet has no choice but to conform to the ventriloquist’s choices. Wood’s metaphor implies—perhaps accidentally—that, without the translator, the text and author don’t exist, that it is the translator who conjures their book into existence.

This metaphor uncovers the enormous power that translators wield over texts, although this power is often invisible to the reader. The puppet is not really speaking; it’s the ventriloquist’s vocal chords that are vibrating. Similarly, the translator’s voice is always present in the texts they create, and this voice may or may not resemble the voice of the author. Translators have their own identities, and with these identities come particular aesthetics, values, and cultural perspectives which manifest in their work. The translator’s influence is pervasive; in many cases, translators are the ones choosing which books “deserve” translation. This is particularly true in situations where the origin countries or languages of the text have less institutional power, and therefore fewer cultural organizations to advocate on their behalf, as well as fewer Anglophone editors with access to their literatures. For translators, these decisions of selection are often fraught with unglamorous practical considerations, such as which projects get grant money, and which projects seem like they would appeal to publishing houses.

Once the project has begun, translators are constantly presented with aesthetic, ethical, and cultural conundrums. Some of these revolve around the text itself: which are the most important features of the text to bring into English? Should the rhyme scheme of the poem be altered to align with Anglophone literary conventions? How will the dialect of a particular character be represented in order to capture their particular voice, as well as the class implications of this dialect in the country of origin? What should be done about bigoted language in the original text? Additional questions may have to do with an imagined Anglophone reader (or editor): what background knowledge can be assumed about the foreign culture, and what will need to be explained? Are there features of the text that will be perceived as “too foreign” or “not foreign enough”?

These are essential conundrums for critics to engage with in their examination of translated works. Without these examinations, the Anglophone reader, unless otherwise informed by a translator’s introduction, may go along with an assumption they are essentially reading the author’s own words, rather than an interpretation of the foreign author’s work, created by someone else.

One of the challenges, of course, is that many English-language critics may not speak the languages the books were originally written in. However, there are fairly simple questions that critics can ask in order to clarify the role of the translator in translated texts—even in situations where the critic doesn’t speak the original language. This is by no means a complete list, but perhaps it provides a point of departure.

  1. What are the values implicit in the translator’s choice of this author and this text?
  2. Does the translator articulate a clear vision for their goals in this translation (perhaps in a critical introduction, perhaps elsewhere in an interview)?
  3. Does this vision align with what critics and scholars have identified as the most important features of the author’s work? Does it align with what the author themselves has identified as most important? Although it’d be best to talk directly with those who have expertise in this author’s literature, using Google Translate to facilitate access to original language reviews, scholarship, and author interviews can be a reasonable substitute.
  4. Is the translator’s vision borne out in what they’ve produced? Have they succeeded relative to their own goals? Have they succeeded relative to what the author and source language readers deem most important about the text?
  5. How does this book fit into other works by this translator? Does their approach in this translation mirror the approach they have taken with other pieces, suggesting they may not be adapting their approach to the demands of different texts?
  6. If there are previous translations of this same text, or of this author, how does this translation compare to these other efforts? How does this translator’s approach diverge from the other translators’ approaches? What are the effects of these differences on the experience of the reader?

Translators are themselves critics: their critical work is embedded in the texts they create. The reviewer has the ability bring the translator’s hidden work of interpretation to the surface. When critics choose to make the act of translation central to their reviews of translated literature, they provide a crucial perspective for readers. No longer should the ventriloquist perform in the shadows.

Thanks to Luke Leafgren for his perspectives on earlier drafts of this article.

Eric Fishman ( is a translator, writer, and educator. His writing and translations have appeared in AGNI, Asymptote, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere. His most recent translation is Outside, a collection of poetry by André du Bouchet (Bitter Oleander Press, with Hoyt Rogers). He is currently translating a volume of poems by the Martinican writer Monchoachi.

Rain Taxi Online Edition Spring 2021 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2021