The OF Blog: Interesting to see one's own reviewing qualifications discussed, or irony is a bitch, huh?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Interesting to see one's own reviewing qualifications discussed, or irony is a bitch, huh?

I know I have made a few posts over the past couple of years about reviews and (obliquely) about qualities necessary for a good (not necessarily "positive") review to take place.  So it was with a great sense of bemused irony that I discovered tonight that a few comments of mine are being discussed elsewhere.

Normally, I would post a response in the thread I'm linking to here, but for some reason, my Reply button isn't active (maybe because I'm not a member), so I guess this is a sort of open letter/confession/something else.  For those who cannot read Portuguese at all, earlier today (Wednesday), one of the authors, Romeu Martins,  that appears in the recently-released Brazilian anthology Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário linked to my Best of 2009 longlist, because I listed this original anthology as one of the books I plan on discussing the last week of this year in the context of discussing non-English works as well as anthologies of short fiction (NB:  the longlist was unnumbered, so there are no "rankings" of my favorites to date, since I want to keep an element of surprise for when I do an overview of the year's best - as I see them - in a variety of categories).

The discussion on the Orkut group for Ficção Científica, when I discovered it via the stats page on my now-mirror blog, Vaguely Borgesian, was (and still is) fascinating.  Not just because I felt like a fly on the wall listening in to a conversation about myself, but also because of the many interesting points raised in the discussion to date.  While I suppose I could translate what everyone was saying almost word-for-word, I believe I'll sum up some of the discussion points and then give my apologia.

Beyond the usual incredulity that I get when people discover reading this blog that I've read hundreds of books this year (currently reading #525) is usually a questioning of how much I can grasp of works not written/published in English.  This is a very valid question, one that I wished I could have addressed there directly. 

I have a facility with languages, it seems.  I went from barely-remembered high school Spanish when I took a job in Florida teaching social studies for students enrolled in the English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program to being able to communicate in serviceable (if not elegant or grammatically correct) Spanish within 4 months. After I moved back to Tennessee after two years there, I continued my self-education in Spanish, doing things from watching novelas en español to reading Spanish-language masterpieces in first English and then Spanish until I learned more than just a basic working vocabulary to taking advanced-level Spanish at a local university in 2005.  I read Spanish very near a highly-educated native's level.  When I read it, I don't "translate" it into English as I read; it's all Spanish in my mind and I understand it without paying much attention to the fact that I shifted languages in my head.  Doesn't hurt that I've assisted a Salvadorean friend of mine with a few translations and that he and I have worked on translating a handful of interviews from Spanish into English.

When I taught in Florida, I also had Portuguese speakers in class (from Portugal, but strangely not from Brazil).  I heard the language, learned a bit from them while I was learning how best to teach them how to understand the social studies lessons in English.  While I didn't have the continual exposure to Portuguese that I've had with Spanish, the structures of the two languages are so similar to me (plus I had two years of university education in classical Latin and was also around Haitian speakers in Florida, so there are several layers of cognates and lexical similarities that I draw upon when reading another Romance language) that it is not that difficult for me to read something written in Portuguese. In addition to that, I have acquired Portuguese grammars in the past year and have worked on learning the grammatical rules and words that do differ from the Spanish.  It's still a work in progress, but my level of understanding is already better than my grasp of Latin.

But as a few commentators point out, being able to read a language fluently enough to get the gist of a phrase and understanding it enough to grasp not just the syntax but also the semantics is something completely different. Can a non-native reader (since I would be best able to be a passive receiver of information in that language than someone who could speak it fluently) ever hope to be able to review a work in a second (or third) language with enough depth and breadth of understanding?

That is the $64,000 question.  I would say that it depends.  When I read (and then re-read) the Steampunk anthology, there certainly were a handful of times that I had to pause and re-read the section to make sure I "got it."  The language in my head when I read it?  An odd mixture of Spanish and the remembered Continental Portuguese (and yes, I know there are considerable differences between that and Brazilian Portuguese) that somehow made sense to me. 

Is that enough to qualify me to review adequately this work?  I guess there's just one way to find out.  If I have time this weekend (perhaps as soon as Friday, since I'm taking the day off from work), I'll review the anthology with just as much analysis (I hope!) as I've provided for prior anthologies that I've enjoyed.  After all, if I'm going to be going out on a limb in the eyes of some and praising a book that 99% or so of my regular audience couldn't read, I guess I better damn well make sure that I state my case well and let others decide just how much I grasped (and how much I failed to grasp about thematic qualities, narrative structure, characterizations, etc.), no?


Mihai A. said...

OK, now I read and review in a second language for me. And one that is 85% self-taught, because besides the basic elements learned in school the rest came through movies, computer games and books. I am not certain if I should review in English, but most of my readings (of the favorite genre) comes from English and I enjoy reviewing in this language. I know that there are language subtilities or expressions that will escape me. I've also learned, from my language and from some Spanish courses I've attended, that there are a few language aspects that only a native speaker can sense them. Also I do not see myself as a professional reviewer or a critique, so I tend and try not to talk about the language used by an author. However, I do not see a problem in reviewing in a second language as long as I talk about the novel, its story, characters, strong and weak points. So, I believe that a reviewer writing in his second language can be a good or very good reviewer in that language (don't get me wrong, I am not talking about myself here :D).

Jacques Barcia said...

Hi, Larry! Though I think that whole discussion is pretty stupid, I've linked this post to that topic.


Romeu Martins said...

Hahaha, thanks, man! And congrats.

Adriana Rodrigues said...

I'm in this community, and I don't understand why people just don't believe that a foreigner can speak Portuguese. Occan's Razor fail, imho. I mean, there are people who know Klingon, why not Portuguese? Perhaps it's due the Brazilians' traditional lack of self-steem, but I think this topic's business was just common jealousy. xD

Larry Nolen said...


I agree, and I've already done a few reviews of books written in/translated into Spanish that didn't differ in form, content, or depth of analysis than books I read in English. I think it's up to the reviewer to decide how much s/he grasps the novel and how far to explore topics.


I kinda agree, but I did find the discussion to be fascinating nonetheless, as it at least served as a challenge that I needed.


No problem! I wouldn't be praising the antho if I didn't think it added quite a bit to the expanding discourse on what constitutes Steampunk. Started re-reading it for the third time this morning (off work today).


Perhaps it was just common jealousy, but what fascinated me was this sense that there was a surprise that an estrangeiro would have a genuine curiosity about Brazilian SF. If anything, I'm more interested in Portuguese and Spanish SF/F than I am in Anglo-American writing. I'm fairly certain that I'm far from the only one. I just will try avoiding making the mistake that certain UK writers (McDonald, McAuley) have made in regards to depicting Brazil.

Harry Markov said...

I seem to have missed it on time, but I was out of town then and couldn't catch up with my Google Reader.

As far as this discussion goes I think that Mihai, Val, you and myself are examples that reviewing competently after reading in a second language is possible.

To be quite frank I know my English better than I know my native tongue, but I think this also has to do with me being actively writing fiction in it that contributes to this.

To be humble about it I am not a great reviewer or a critiquer, but I do know what I am talking about, when I start writing a review, because I always get my novel, body and soul with intent and small nuances. At least I think I do get my novels, since I have never gotten complaints stating that.

Unknown said...


Orkut communities accept replies only from its members. Altough the discussion was as ankward as it should be, you would be welcome if you want to join us. :)

Larry Nolen said...


Interesting take. I wonder if it might be related to "code mixing" (switching so much between two languages that elements of the second influence the grammar of the first). That is something that affects me quite a bit with Spanish, especially after I've finished reading a novel in that language and thus have been thinking in it more consistently. My sentences often subvert the adjective-noun order, which isn't always bad, I suppose, but odd at times.


Might just do that in the future, although for now I'll probably continue to be a curious lurker :D

Harry Markov said...

This is a bit embarrassing to share, but sometimes my vocabulary gets mixed up and I start speaking in English words, which is fine and mighty when I talk in English class, but not as ideal, when talking with peers.

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