Edith Grossman on Why Translation Matters

Heidi on March 15, 2010
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Grossman Edith Grossman is one of the most recognized translators of contemporary Latin American fiction into English; if you've read Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mayra Montero, Carlos Fuentes, Antonio Munoz Molina, or Mario Vargas Llosa over the past 10-15 years, you've probably seen her work.

I am personally indebted to Grossman for her 2003 translation of Don Quixote, which completely changed the way I read that book. I had always enjoyed the story, but Grossman's translation allowed me to enjoy her language, as well, which pulled it out of the sort of academic fog I'd read it through before. Carlos Fuentes said of the translation in his NYT review:

This Don Quixote can be read with the same ease as the latest Philip Roth and with much greater facility than any Hawthorne. Yet there is not a single moment in which, in forthright English, we are not reading a 17th-century novel. This is truly masterly: the contemporaneous and the original co-exist.
In Why Translation Matters, partially adapted and reworked from her lectures on translation (including the instructive and engaging "Translating Cervantes"), Grossman candidly shares her thoughts about the practice and realities of translating in a literary environment that is hostile or indifferent to translated works.

Grossman writes compellingly about the role translation has played in the history of literature and culture, and why we desperately need to have more translated books available in English. She also lets us in on the seemingly elusive process of translation:

...what we do is not an act of magic, like altering base metals into precious stones, but the result of a series of creative decisions and imaginative acts of criticism. In the process of translating, we endeavor to hear the first version of the work as profoundly and completely as possible, struggling to discover the linguistic charge, the structural rhythms, the subtle implications, the complexities of meaning and suggestion in vocabulary and phrasing, and the ambient, cultural inferences and conclusions these tonalities allow us to extrapolate. This is a kind of reading as deep as any encounter with a literary text can be.
Edith Grossman was kind enough to answer some of my questions in a recent email exchange:

Amazon.com: One of the things you advocate for in the book is for greater recognition of translators and the art of translation. I have a much more thorough understanding of the process of translation after reading it, and I feel like more readers may be drawn to works in translation if they knew more about the process. How do you think translators can connect more with readers, or do they need to?

Grossman: The best connection between translators and readers is the translated book, but that reality is in the hands of publishers.

Amazon.com: Do you think that better recognition of translators would bring about more translations being made available in English?

Grossman: Perhaps. The resistance to translation of English-language publishers on both sides of the Atlantic is a mystery to me. I don't know how to move them to publish more literary translations.

Amazon.com: Do you think people understanding more about how translation works would help them recognize translators they like? Are there some translators whose work you always try to read regardless of who the original author was?

Grossman: There are some translators whose work I know I'll enjoy: Margaret Jull Costa (from Portuguese and Spanish); Michael Hoffmann (from German); William Weaver (from Italian), and always, Gregory Rabassa.

Perhaps, if more translations become available, people will begin to recognize the names of translators, just as they recognize the names of original authors. I'm not sure this is a function of understanding the translating process as much as increased familiarity with translated work.

Amazon.com: So much of translation is about sound, as you mention. What's your process for emulating the sound of the original work? Is this more important in poetry than in fiction?

Grossman: The translator tries to create effects in English that are comparable to effects in the original. These include sound, of course, as well as figures of speech, puns, slang, metaphors, and other devices. I tend to think that the more artful the prose, the closer it is to poetry and the more important the structure of these elements becomes.

Amazon.com: As you describe the process of translating, you talk about how most translators consider themselves to be writers. (Of course you are. How else could you pull off an engaging and memorable reading experience?). But you also list out the many source materials that a translator draws from in order to recreate the experience of the original work. What percentage of translating is creative vs. interpretive?

Grossman: I'm not certain, since you really can't have one without the other. In other words, the success of the interpretation often depends on the degree of creativity brought to the task.

Amazon.com: Of the skills you bring to translation, which is the most indispensable?

Grossman: Caring deeply about literature and about the English language seem crucial to me.

Amazon.com: If someone were interested in becoming a translator, what would be the best course of study: creative writing? literature? other cultures? What about someone who wants to review works in translation?

Grossman: I think all the factors you mention are important to translating. Probably preparation for being a reviewer of translations would require the same devotion to literature, creative writing, and other cultures.

Amazon.com: Critics receive a fair bit of vitriol in this book (while you disagree with Nabokov's theories of literal translation, you share his disdain for critics!). I was particularly struck by the suggestion that anyone reviewing a work of translation should also read the work in the original language. At the same time, you raise the issue that not enough translations are picked up by reviewers. In a sense, you're giving people--who, if they're reviewing books in our current literary reality, are doing it for little or no money, on the side of whatever job they do to make a living--one more reason not to review translated books. Can you reconcile that contradiction?

Grossman: In the best of all possible worlds, reviewers of translated works would read both languages, but since that isn't the nature of our world, what I would hope for is reviewers who take the fact of the translation and the existence of the translator more seriously. Incidentally, I thought most reviewers received assignments from their editors.

Amazon.com: I loved getting the insight that translators hate their work being called "seamless," because so often that's seen as high praise. (I'm embarrassed to admit that I've done it.) What are some of the words you use to describe a good translation?

Grossman: The lack of an adequate vocabulary for discussing translation is a huge gap in our critical lexicon. I'm afraid I can't come up with all the terminology, but certainly the work of the translator needs to be acknowledged and recognized rather than dismissed with a single adverb or adjective.

Amazon.com: Interest in translation seems to be on the rise, thanks to presses like Open Letter, Archipelago, UDP, Dalkey, and organizations like Words Without Borders? Do you see progress, or is it still very much in the realm of university and small presses?

Grossman: Yes, I agree there has been progress, not only in the work of the presses and publications you mention but in the fact, for example, that translation played a large role at the recent MLA conference. How this will affect larger commercial houses is anyone's guess. And then there's the fact of the New York Times touting Google's translations when it's perfectly obvious that computerized translation of new works is absolutely unsatisfactory.

Amazon.com: Do you have a prescription for curing our country's "increasingly intense jingoistic parochialism," something you cite as one of the biggest problems keeping us from publishing more work in translation?

Grossman: No, sorry to say I don't--unless it's people talking about the problem in forums like this one.


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