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Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman

Why Translation Matters
by Edith Grossman


The award-winning literary translator Edith Grossman discusses books on and of translation that inspired her, and considers the trade-off that every translator faces, between fidelity and meaning

Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman

Why Translation Matters
by Edith Grossman

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You recently wrote the book Why Translation Matters. I thought I’d throw that title back at you and ask straight out: Why does translation matter?

That’s a very nasty question! “Why doesn’t it matter?” is more to the point. I think translation is the cement that holds literary civilisation together. It’s the way that we learn about other literatures, other peoples – I’m avoiding the word “cultures” because it’s not a favourite word of mine. The way we learn about the world is through translation. Since not everyone can read every language in the world, the only way to find out what people are writing and thinking is to read translations.

Why don’t you like the word “cultures”?

Perhaps I associate it with that putdown “culture vulture”. I’m never quite sure what people mean when they talk about culture. I’m not sure if they mean society, or high art, or what exactly they have in mind.

Though it’s through translations like your own and those of Gregory Rabassa, whom we’ll talk about later, that people do get an understanding of Latin American literature and perhaps, through that, Latin American culture.

I think for me and Gregory, when it comes to our translations of Gabriel García Márquez for example, what you learn about is Gabriel García Márquez. You learn about him as a writer and about what moves him to write novels and short stories. I guess that is also bound to be a reflection of Colombia or Mexico. But I’m not sure you could specify which part of Mexican society or Colombian society is revealed.

What do you think is the most important aspect of a good translation? There are certain words which get thrown around, like “seamless”.

There are two things, not in order of importance. One is: Does reading the translation move you to find out more about the original author and their work? The other is: Does the translation make you completely happy as a reader? Do you forget that it’s a translation and simply become involved in the fiction or the poem that you’re reading? In a way those two things move in opposite directions – one towards the original and the other towards the end result of the translation.

Which brings us to your choices. Would you say Samuel Putnam’s translation of Don Quixote made you completely happy as a reader?

I read this translation when I was a kid, 16 or 17 years old. I was so excited by the book, and so moved by it – it had me in tears. When I was young I thought Don Quixote was the greatest tragedy I had ever read. But as I get older I find it funnier and funnier. I think my sensitive skin toughened up as I grew older. That translation is one of the reasons why I specialised in Spanish and became involved in all of this.

So you read Putnam’s translation before the original Spanish?

Right. As a graduate student and an academic for many years, I read Don Quixote in Spanish over and over again – at least 10 times. But I never read any other translation except for Putnam’s.

What is it about the translation that you love so much?

I haven’t looked at it since I was a teenager. The point of it is not necessarily how well Putnam translated Don Quixote. The point is that this book moved me very deeply at a time in my life when I was making career decisions. For that reason it is a very important book to me.

It’s interesting that you describe it as a book that moves you. I think a lot of more casual readers get put off by its length and the huge tradition behind it.

Just imagine how I felt when I started to translate it! If readers are overwhelmed, I was terrified. It’s not called the greatest novel ever written for nothing. A few years ago they did a poll of 100 writers around the world, asking what the greatest book was that had ever been written, and Don Quixote was the winner. I think the second novel was Madame Bovary, but it was trailing far behind. The overwhelming favourite was Quixote.

Which goes back to what you were saying about the importance of translation – most people wouldn’t discover this great literature if translation didn’t exist.


You are the most recent in a very long line of translators to tackle Don Quixote. I read something recently about translations of Tolstoy which said that Russian readers have only one Tolstoy, while English speakers have a plethora. Do you think there’s value in having so many translations for something as significant as Cervantes?

First of all, it’s inevitable that there are so many translations because no two translators translate in the same way. With every translation you have a new version of the book. I think it can be very enlightening to a reader to read more than one translation. It’s compelling to think about why a translator makes a particular choice in phrasing, and compare it with another translator’s choice. That can be revelatory as regards the original novel.

On the other hand, as much as I love translation I think if you read the original language, there’s no point in reading the book in any other language. If you read Russian there’s no point in not reading War and Peace in Russian, no matter how wonderful the English translation may be. Everyone should read the original language where they can. Cervantes is a brilliant writer, and if you read Spanish you shouldn’t deny yourself the pleasure of direct contact with him.

Putnam’s translation came out in 1949 and used more or less contemporary language for his time. You write in the introduction to your own translation of Quixote how you took pains to make it a modern version. Should a translator always aim to translate a work into a contemporary style?

Probably. This is an issue I face when I deal with older pieces of writing – 16th century poetry, for example, or Don Quixote. If I were to not use my current idiom, what language would I use? A fake 16th century English? Would I try to imitate Spenser in The Faerie Queene? Or Shakespeare? Whom do I imitate in order to write in 16th century English? It’s a ridiculous question, and the obvious answer is that it makes no sense. When a writer writes, no matter when she or he lived, most of the time that author is writing in contemporary, living language. I think the translation should reflect that.

Of course, talking about contemporary language doesn’t mean using slang or street language. But in Don Quixote, for example, was I supposed to use the second person singular “thee” and” thou” forms? Apart from some Quakers we haven’t used that in English for 300 years. So how could I make it old-fashioned? In my Quixote the only time I do anything like that is when Don Quixote goes off on a rant and starts imitating the language of the novels of chivalry. Then I make a conscious effort to write antique-sounding language.

The second book you’ve chosen is Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. It’s interesting what you said earlier about how the original always has more value than the translation, because García Márquez himself said that he preferred Rabassa’s English version to his own original.

He’s a delicious man, he says those kind of things all the time. Which takes nothing away from Gregory’s translation, of course. I have read One Hundred Years of Solitude in both Spanish and English, and I was so struck by what Rabassa was able to accomplish that it was the final argument to confirm some changes I made in my own life. I had initially wanted to study baroque poetry in Spanish. I was very enamoured of Francisco de Quevedo and Luis de Góngora.

I moved over into 20th century Latin American literature not long before I read this translation by Rabassa. But it was the immediacy of the translation and the brilliance of the novel which convinced me that I had made the right choice. That of course takes nothing away from 17th century Spanish poetry, but for me it was a good place to go. It was my first inkling that translation could be an art form of great value.

In what way?

Rabassa has accomplished something utterly terrific in his translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude. This novel, which was revolutionary in its structure and its use of imagination, is now absolutely compelling in English as well as in Spanish. On the assumption that most people who have been influenced by García Márquez in the English speaking world have been influenced through Rabassa’s translation, it had a huge effect on novel writing in English. Writers like Toni Morrison, for example, or Salman Rushdie.

Would you say then that Rabassa and García Márquez have equal importance in the way in which they have influenced other writers?

Certainly in the English speaking world. I would never have said it that way, but you’re absolutely right.

That’s good – I got into an argument recently about whether the translator and the author are of equal importance and they didn’t think they were, so I’m glad to have you backing me up!

Well it’s true. One of the great gifts that translation gives us is the ability to read widely, and for young authors to be influenced by writers who originally wrote in a different language. To that extent, the translator is as important as the author. I’ve spoken before about the influence of William Faulkner on a lot of Latin American writers, and particularly on García Márquez. García Márquez says in his memoir that he learned to write by reading Faulkner, and describes him as a great teacher. He was, of course, reading Faulkner in Spanish translation.

Faulkner himself claimed that he read Don Quixote once a year – something which Carlos Fuentes also claims to do – and most likely in English. So Cervantes had an influence on Faulkner through translation, Faulkner had an influence on García Márquez through translation, and García Márquez had an influence on Toni Morrison through translation. In other words, there is a tradition that is passed on from one generation of writers to the next, and the medium of this all is translation.

That’s a great way of looking at it. There is one other question I wanted to ask you about Rabassa. He was the original translator of García Márquez’s works, and then you took over as the translator of Love in the Time of Cholera. I was wondering how that came about.

I have never learnt the answer to that question. I think Rabassa may have been ill – he had some heart problems. But my editor never told me. I asked him once, and told him, “I’m going to ask you this question only once.” He fudged the answer and I dropped it. So I don’t know how it happened.

Your third selection is a bit of a cheat. We pinned you down to Giovanni Pontiero’s translation of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, but you originally chose all of the English translations of José Saramago.

I’ll tell you why I did that. A few years ago, I discovered two authors whom I confess I had known nothing about before, and I discovered them in translation. One was WG Sebald and the other was José Saramago. It was the shock of my life. I was stunned by The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. I read it in Giovanni Pontiero’s translation and I was so overwhelmed by the book – both by Saramago’s vision of the world and by the beauty and skill of the translation – that I started to devour Saramago novels, one after the other.

Giovanni Pontiero was Saramago’s translator until his death, and then Margaret Jull Costa took over. She continued the tradition of great translations of Saramago’s novels right up to the last, Cain. Between Saramago and Sebald a world was opened to me that I had known nothing about. And I have been grateful to Pontiero for bringing Saramago into my life. So yes it was a bit of a cheat, but all of his novels, one after the other, touched me and moved me in the most profound way. And it was through all of the translations that I had that experience.

Saramago has a notoriously idiosyncratic style – quite difficult to translate I imagine. How effectively does Pontiero manage to convey it?

I think he does it very well. There are things that you can do in a romance language, syntactically, that you simply cannot do in English. You would just wind up with gobbledygook. You have to impose certain syntactical rules for it to be a sentence in English, so it doesn’t match up with the original. In other words, you can leave every subject pronoun out of the sentence and move things around in Spanish or Portuguese in a way that you simply cannot do in English. But Pontiero translates it beautifully.

Having translated Spanish myself, I find the hardest part is always cutting down a sentence that’s a page long into something more manageable in English.

I once translated a story of perhaps three or four pages that consisted of one single sentence. So it’s possible, though I wouldn’t want to do it every day of my life. The point I’m trying to make about that syntactical difference is that word order is crucial in the meaning of an English sentence. If you say “John loves Mary”, it’s different to “Mary loves John”. The words are exactly the same, but the position changes their meaning. Position almost doesn’t matter in the romance languages. You can place parts of speech all over a sentence and the very structure of the words indicates what that sentence means.

In English, we don’t always have endings on verbs to indicate the subject – I love, you love, we love, they love – so without a subject pronoun that doesn’t indicate who’s doing the loving. If you take away the subject pronoun, you have no verb. You simply have a noun, love.

Would you say, when doing a translation, that it often ends up as a bit of a grammatical struggle?

It’s very difficult sometimes, because you want to maintain the style. If the original is craggy and difficult, your job isn’t to smooth it out, your job is to create craggy and difficult English. But sometimes you’re constrained by the nature of the language you translate into. If you translate from English to Spanish, Spanish has certain requirements which you cannot break, otherwise the sentence makes no sense. Languages are, obviously, very different.

Let’s move onto your final two choices, both by the translator and academic John Felstiner, whom you write about in Why Translation Matters. There’s a nice quote in Translating Neruda where he says: “The translator’s own background, research, and process of composition do not appear in the finished work, any more than the scaffolding does around a finished building.”

If you’re interested in translation – or even if you’re not – Felstiner has done wonderful work in these two books on Pablo Neruda and Paul Celan. He writes brilliantly about translation, which is very difficult to do. In both of these books he deals with very complex poets.

Translating Neruda is kind of a diary of the practice of translation, and it’s very untheoretical which makes me happy. It’s extremely practical in terms of what the challenges were in the original, and how he went about solving those challenges in his translations. The first chapter especially is an entire course on translation. It’s just brilliant. It’s a book not only about translating, but about Neruda’s poetry and by extension about Neruda himself.

He really deconstructs his translation, which seems to me a very innovative approach. Is this something you would like to see more of?

I would love to see more and more of it. I think it’s very helpful for the reading of the original. It is illuminating as far as the actual practice of translation is concerned.

It feels like we’re moving past the stage where the translator is meant to be the invisible hand, the person behind the curtain who does all the work and isn’t really appreciated for it. The role is valued more now.

As a translator, of course I think that’s very important. Translators tend to be given short shrift. But the work translators do is too important for it to be put in second place.

Do you see translators gaining more of a reputation these days than when you started out?

Yes, I think that is happening. Certainly in the US, there are more and more academic programmes in translation, so it’s possible to specialise in translation in graduate school. That hardly existed at all when I was in school. I’ve taught translation myself over the years. I left full-time teaching many years ago and started full-time translating, though I still teach courses from time to time.

Do you think it’s possible for people to make a career out of full-time literary translation?

I’m apparently one of the few translators in the United States who works at it full time. There isn’t much money to be made in translating. So you take a vow of poverty, and proceed. But that’s getting better too, as translators become more sophisticated, begin to use lawyers and take care of their contracts.

Finally, can you introduce Felstiner’s book on Celan to our readers?

Paul Celan’s poetry is just bloodcurdling. It was written in concentration camps – he was a victim of the Nazis. The poetry is incredibly intense and almost surreal in its use of imagery. I didn’t know much about him before I read Felstiner’s book. I knew his name but I hadn’t read anything of his. It was an overwhelming experience to read the poetry in Felstiner’s translation, and to read about Celan himself and the process of translating work that documents one of the worst times in our history. It’s a very powerful book, and Celan is… actually I have no adjectives to describe the kind of poetry he writes – it’s just so powerful.

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Is Felstiner’s book a critical study, a biography, an extended translation?

It’s all of those things. In this book I found out about Celan’s life, his poetry and the translation process of several of his poems. That mix is one of the brilliant things that Felstiner can do. I don’t know anyone who writes books like him. I’m a great fan of his, even though I’ve never met him. I think he’s remarkable – he takes you by the hand and leads you through some very difficult terrain, which is the writing and translating of complex and difficult poetry. I don’t know if I could do the same. I would love to be able to, but I’ve never tried.

Felstiner is also a literary critic. Do you think a critical background is helpful to a translator?

I think there’s more of a link between being a good translator and being a writer – even a failed writer. Your commitment to writing is what really matters most as a translator.

This interview was first published in February 2012.

December 29, 2012

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Edith Grossman

Edith Grossman

Edith Grossman is an award-winning Spanish-to-English literary translator. She has translated the works of Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez, and her translation of Don Quixote has been praised by Carlos Fuentes and Harold Bloom. Grossman is also the author of Why Translation Matters

Edith Grossman

Edith Grossman

Edith Grossman is an award-winning Spanish-to-English literary translator. She has translated the works of Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel García Márquez, and her translation of Don Quixote has been praised by Carlos Fuentes and Harold Bloom. Grossman is also the author of Why Translation Matters