Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Edith Grossman's "Why Translation Matters"

In the fall of 1986, I was in a master’s program at Washington University in St. Louis, and taking a seminar in “The Latin American Novel.” I have to admit that, prior to the course, I was familiar with (but had not read) only one Latin American novel – One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Yes, I was an Anglo-centric cretin.)

We read 100 Years of Solitude, and we read The Green House and The War of the End of the World by Mario Vargas Llosa. And Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman. And The Death of Artemio Cruz by Carlos Fuentes. And several other works. I wrote my major paper for the seminar on Vargas Llosa’s Conversations in the Cathedral, which seems to have no narrative structure at all until you understand that it is actually four stories being told simultaneously. Think Faulkner on steroids.

This was a whole new world for me, and I explored it as fully as I could. Not too long after I finished the course, I began reviewing books for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; the book editor discovered my affinity for Latin American fiction; and I soon became inundated with novels, non-fiction and poetry from Latin America, Spain and Portugal, and then the fiction of American children of immigrants to the U.S. (legal and illegal). I did this for close to seven years – and I had to keep funneling books to school libraries to prevent our house from becoming a vast library.

But I didn’t read the works in the original Spanish or Portuguese. I read them in translation. And so I met names like Alfred MacAdam, Helen Lane, Gregory Rabassa – and Edith Grossman.

Why Translation Matters is based upon two lectures Grossman gave at Yale University and an original essay written for this volume. She explains, with all of the artful love of a translator, what the process of translation involves, the challenges it poses (and they are formidable), and why translations are important. And she means translation “not as the weary journeyman of the publishing world but as a living bridge between two realms of discourse, two realms of experience, and two sets of readers.”

For the fact is that no good translation can be a literal, word-for-word effort. It’s simply not possible. Languages are full of expressions, artifacts, histories, nuances, hidden meanings and all of the other components of culture that may – or may not – translate well. And even if they translate well, they can’t really ever be exact, because the experience that shaped Spanish, for example, is not the same that created English. The translator faces the task of remaining true to the author’s words and intent, but that dedication can mean, and often does mean, continuing to “write” the work in hand. In that sense, translation means that no literary work is actually ever “finished.”

Grossman tackles these issues head on. And it’s because of translators like Grossman that we have anything resembling a “world literature” instead of a collection of “national literatures.”

Just a few years ago, Grossman translated Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. She had first read Don Quixote in English, translated by Samuel Putnam – the same translation of Don Quixote I first read and fell in love with. Her translation has met wide acclaim, and she talks extensively about it in her third essay in Why Translation Matters.

I knew her work before I met her in this volume. In fact, I’ve read at least seven novels she has translated, and I learned that I could see “Translated by Edith Grossman” on a book’s title page and know that I was holding a novel that would be well worth my time to read.


Maureen said...

Good post, Glynn, and a good reminder to those of us who read translations.

If you haven't read it, you might find of interest the piece "Richard Howard on Edith Grossman's book, Why Translation Matters":

For those who don't know there's an excerpt of Grossman's book at Words Without Borders:

As you feel about Grossman, I also feel about Rabassa and also Darwish's translator Fady Joudah.

I've just got Borges' Seven Nights and look forward to reading it.

Anonymous said...

I tackled Edith Grossman's Don Quixote a couple of years ago and enjoyed it very much.

Translation fascinates me. My husband grew up in Belgium speaking French. His family translated Christian literature into French for a publishing house they founded in 1956 to provide quality Christian literature to francophone Africa.

As a result, the challenge of translating is something he grew up with (and I married into). I've talked with his family about dynamic translation versus word-for-word translation; also, I've witnessed people translating live for various events (church services, seminars, etc.) and observed how hard it is for the translator to find the right expressions sometimes. It's not as simple as finding the equivalent word; it's also the ideas.

I'm glad that people like Edith Grossman have committed themselves to translating well, so that we can have an opportunity to learn from other eras and cultures. We couldn't do it without her.

L.L. Barkat said...

Yes, it matters!

I fell in love with Tina Nunally's translation of Kristin Lavransdatter. That, after totally rejecting another translation which made the whole thing feel terribly boring.

Nunally captured the lightness that I believe must have existed in Undset's original.

Translation is a real art. :)

L.L. Barkat said...


I just put it on hold at my library. Thanks for the recommendation! :)

Anonymous said...

i am amazed at how much of a reader you are. i have never met anyone that reads and retains as much as you.

this is a varied, full, and interestng post!