Lost in Translation

by Rob Gregory Browne

You know you’ve made it when you suck in German.

Last week Dusty talked about Amazon reviews and author reactions to them that are sometimes misguided if not downright crazy.  Dusty mentioned Tess Gerritsen, who has also written about negative reviews on her blog a few times, and she and I recently agreed via email that a good old fashion EXPLETIVE DELETED to an empty room can do a lot to cleanse the soul.

Good reviews are wonderful and make me momentarily feel as if I might actually know what I’m doing when I sit down to write a book, but the key word here is "momentarily." 

Bad reviews, however, seem to settle in deep and simmer for awhile — perhaps even forever — a constant reminder that I truly, truly suck and should probably give up this fantasy of ever being a "real" writer.

I like to pretend that I can simply shrug them off, but I think I’m fooling myself.  What’s worse is that I can’t find it within me to ignore the particularly depressing one-star monstrosities.  They’re the proverbial train wreck that I can’t stop gaping at — except that I don’t just happen upon them.  I actually seek them out.

Seem hard to believe?

I subscribe to a service called Google Alerts.  It’s a pretty spotty little service, but the idea behind it is that every time your name is mentioned on the web, Google notifies you and gives you a link to the page that mentions you.

Last week, I got a notification that my name was mentioned on Audible Germany.  This isn’t all that surprising considering I have an audio version of my book for sale there called DEVIL’S KISS (the German title for KISS HER GOODBYE).  When I went to the page, I discovered I had a few reviews for the book  and, surprise, surprise, one of them was a one-star.

So what did I do?  Did I shake my head and just walk away?


Believe it or not, being the glutton for punishment I am, I actually copied the one-star review, written in German, took it over to my favorite translation website, Babelfish, and pasted it into the translator.

This is what popped out:

A book of point of zero, which was to be borne only by the speaker at all. A completely not-saying banal mixture of likewise banal already Trade Union of German Employees nature works such as
Sutherlands/Roberts Flatliners (this nevertheless importantly more excitingly) and Steven Kings pseudophilosophical blood Erguessen…Completely unclearly that this ‘ work ‘ found at all a publisher and
then even still into the lists of sales of Audibel succeeded, in order to bore our brains… Recommend the money to save!

Now, there’s enough in that ridiculous "translation" to pretty much get the point across.  This guy thought my book sucked, big time. 

So what exactly was I thinking here?  Why on earth did I take it upon myself to translate this review in the first place?  Am I a complete masochist or what?

Fortunately, the same website had a couple of five-stars, one of which I feel duty bound to reprint here:

This ‘ Hoer’ book has still somewhat differently than most of them, because according to my opinion reality, dream, fantasy, its and Nichtsein devoured so closely with one another is that one can become dizzy and the own imaginative power thus no borders are set. It works
still for a very long time after…

Outstanding read. The individual characters come super more rueber and before the mental eye run off the book than film proper. For people, which do not only believe in the things those it see can, must. Much pleasure.

I’m not sure what a "Hoer" book is (it sounds a bit like a Long Island working girl), but the final words, "Much pleasure" are enough to give me that momentary reprieve from literary self-loathing I crave.

Yet despite my own pleasure, the phrase Recommend the money to save! (complete with exclamation point) from the one-star review keeps creeping back into my brain and, let’s face it, it’s my own goddamn fault for translating the sucker in the first place.

The saving grace here is something that all of us who have managed to get into print have to remember:  we have reviews.

Good or bad, it’s truly a wonderful thing that we have reviews at all, and I’ll take a bad review any day over not being published at all.  A bad review is proof that I’ve made it.  A bad review in German is proof that I’ve REALLY made it, because I can thank my lucky stars that people in Germany are actually reading my book.  In fact, I just got a royalty check from that amazing country, so you definitely won’t hear me complaining.

So, go ahead, bring on those bad reviews.  Because no matter what they say, I know I am blessed to be doing what I love………..

So now, for the writers in the crowd, it’s your turn.  Post a Bablefish translation of your favorite review, good or bad.  I just love to read those things.

Oh, and while I’m here, I guess I should plug KISS HER GOODBYE, which was released in mass market paperback here in the U.S. yesterday and can be found at your favorite bookstores and, I’m told, your local Walmart.

I guess I should brace myself for more reviews…

25 thoughts on “Lost in Translation

  1. J.D. Rhoades

    From a German website’s review of THE DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND:

    A real cauldron of people and entanglements, the author presents the reader there, without author or the reader to lose. Funny is it, and with mild hand, inconspicuous but serve. If the book also offers voltage, Thrillerburleske showpiece this is his humor. All scenes are a bit absurd oversubscribed. The political finger is not demonstrative collected; something which makes it easily makes the reader to overlook the fact that an author writes, his gaze firmly on the social reality of its persons.

  2. Mark Terry

    In general, and I can say this because my books were more often ignored than reviewed, that it’s better to be reviewed negatively than not be reviewed at all.

    My question, one I ask myself regularly, is: why am I skeptical of the praise and accepting of the criticism?

  3. Jim Winter

    During my brief run as an allegedly published author, I was told a positive review moves 20 copies, a bad one moves 5, and no review…

    Well, I’d rather have the bad review. At least I don’t have to read it.

  4. Wilfred Bereswill

    I’ve always believed that we don’t truly know how we’ll react to any given situation until we face it. I’m not sure I’m looking forward to this aspect of the writing life, but if you’re getting reviews, at least people are reading what you wrote and that’s a good thing.

  5. Rob Gregory Browne

    krimileser, thanks for the translation. Perhaps the next time I find a one-star review in German and I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I’ll seek you out for a proper translation…

  6. Patti Abbott

    There are people that post bad reviews on Amazon just to see their name in print or in the belief they can do some harm to someone that way. Passive-aggressives, really. Don’t let them harm you. No sane person uses amazon reviews to buy books.

  7. krimileser

    @ J.D. Rhoades

    I would strongly assume that the German version of your text is written by me. But I would not think that it was a one-star review but a fair and positive assessment of your book.

    @ Robert Gregory Browne

    Yes, if you don’t find any bad reviews in English come to Germany and I surely would give you a hand.

  8. Rob Gregory Browne

    Ha. I seek them out because I’m truly sick in the head.

    I can’t say I’ve had any bad reviews in English yet (emphasis on yet) but some of them are certainly lukewarm. Those I can live with.

  9. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Rob,Congrats on the release!

    Ah . . . bad reviews in any language hurt. Plain and simple — they feel like personal attacks because fiction comes from deep inside ourselves.

    Why do we give praise less weight?False modesty? Fear of the other shoe dropping? The knowledge that even the best praise will be forgotten tomorrow?

  10. toni mcgee causey

    I have a screenwriter / producer friend who said that he was in the business of entertaining people, of having them enjoy what he created, and when someone didn’t enjoy it, he felt like he’d failed… and his curiosity would just eat at him, because he felt like if he could just figure out how he’d failed them, then he could correct that error in his creative process and all would be fixed. Except that never works, because as soon as you correct for one person, you change something that someone else would have liked, and now they dislike it.

    He also seemed to think that negative criticism was a more honest response, and so we give more credibility to it. That the positive comments are always going to be questionable because we’ve grown up with parents or society eager to pat us on the head and tell us we’re good at something, because that’s what parents / friends do to encourage, and so when we find out, especially for the first time, that we’re maybe not so good at something… the positive stuff feels less honest and the negative stuff feels like it’s the only thing we can trust.

    Which, of course, is a very skewed way of looking at the world, ultimately, because it doesn’t allow for the fact that everything is subjective. Unless it’s an Olympic speed race with a timer, there’s no true final opinion, and we need to remember that.

    I don’t seek out the negative opinions. I may read them if I see them, but I’m pretty hard on myself most days and can get pretty bummed, so I don’t need the extra help off the cliff. I try to remember that people said a lot of nice things, because that gets me through that teetering on the cliff moment.

  11. Tom Barclay

    Ya know what, Rob? You didn’t write the book so that some ignert yayhoo could tell you what they thought of it.

    This is where they Serenity Prayer is really handy, especially the more pungent two-word version.

    All together now . . .

  12. Rob Gregory Browne

    toni, your friend has an interesting take on the world. But when I praise something, I truly mean it. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t bother saying anything.

    And if I hate something, I keep my thoughts to a chosen few. Unless, of course, I’m in a bad mood.

    What time is it now?

  13. toni mcgee causey

    Yeah, Dusty, I cracked up when he said that one, too.

    Seriously, he is a sweet man, but really obsessed over negative comments. To the point where I knew he had sale for a script, but kept re-writing it (lost that sale) and kept re-writing it, and changing it… I think three or four years later, he was still re-thinking the concept. It was a tough SF type of story.

    Whenever I see that Serenity prayer mentioned, I think of Serenity, which makes me think of Firefly, the movie, which makes me think of whats-his-name’s comment, “I am a leaf on the wind” right before being impaled.

    See? This is why I don’t need to read negative comments. I am a danger.

  14. Tom Barclay

    “This is why I don’t need to read negative comments. I am a danger.”

    Yeah, Toni, maybe so, but at least we can be dead bang certain Bobbie Faye is your brainchild.

  15. Allison Brennan

    Negative reviews suck, but they’re out there, and I’m not writing for people who don’t like my books. At least, that’s what I tell myself 🙂

    I keep all fan mail, because someone who seeks you out to send you a “Hey, I loved your book” email, really, really loved your book. So if I get dissed, I read my fan mail and I get over it.

    Toni is right, as usual, in that if we try to fix what’s wrong for one person, we’ll tick off someone else. Take sex 🙂 . . . I have some die-hard mystery readers who don’t like that I have sex in my books. Well, if I take out the sex, then I’ll probably tick off ten times as many people who have now come to expect it. The most important thing is that I have to love what I’m writing. I’ll admit, the hardest criticisms to take are those that I know are true–I can see my own flaws pretty readily, so when someone digs at one of them, that’s what hurts more than someone who complains that my books are too violent, or too disturbing, or have a sex scene.

  16. Zoë Sharp

    I was going to post a reply to this, but I think Toni just said everything I was going to say …

    I actively avoid reading bad reviews (I, too, don’t need any help off the cliff) but the odd one slips under the radar. My screen saver is a scrolling message that says, in large letters:


    But ‘pleasant’ is a particularly stinging phrase for a crime thriller writer to read about their own work.

    The nicest bad translation I read (if that isn’t an oxymoron) was of a catchphrase from a UK TV gameshow, where the lugubrious host used to say to the losers, “Come and have a look at what you would have won.”

    Running through a Japanese translator and back again, this became, “Please to be observing what you have failed to obtain.”

    And Alison – just how much sex IS there in your books ?!?

  17. Rob Gregory Browne

    Think positive. Yes.

    I was just talking to Brett Battles about how we writers have such fragile egos. One part of us KNOWS we’re good at what we do, while another part worries that this assessment may be wrong…

    The negative reviews seem to satisfy the devil on our shoulder: “See, I told you so.”


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *