In the world of literary translation Edith Grossman is a rock star. On a recent evening in London her fans, including me, packed into the London Review Book Shop in Bloomsbury to hear her talk about her book “Why Translation Matters” and the art of giving voice in English to great novels and poetry written in Spanish.
Grossman’s name looms large in the publishing industry. If the work of Colombian novelist Gabriel García Marquez has changed your life, you may have her to thank. She translated many of his books, including “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “The General in His Labyrinth” and “Living to Tell the Tale” (though she did not translate his most famous work “One Hundred Years of Solitude”). She has also translated Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes.
In 2003 she published a new translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ “Don Quixote de la Mancha” to glowing critical reviews and awe from anyone who has read that work in the original early 17th Century Spanish.
We were all dying to know, how did she do it?
Well, she said, it did take her almost two weeks to translate just the first line of the novel, probably the most famous line in all of Spanish literary history. “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, …. ”
And then she revealed to us the secret sauce. Translation is an “aural process.” She spent those two weeks repeating that opening line to herself out loud in Spanish and then testing, out loud, various versions in English. She did this in her house, and out walking in the streets to the stares of passersby, until she found a combination that gave the right voice in English to the phrase.
Her goal, she said was to give the English language reader the same experience of the words that the Spanish language reader would have in Spanish.
“Translators are like actors who speak the author’s lines like the author would if he could speak English,” she said.
Sounds easy. It’s not. It took her two years to translate the whole book and she sometimes spent days on a single page. “Cervantes was like Captain Kirk. His use of language was going where no one had gone before. He created a new literary language.”
Grossman’s resulting “Don Quixote” is said to be the definitive translation to English.
Grossman is 77 years old, a soft-spoken, white-haired New Yorker from the Upper West Side. But she pulls no punches about her craft. She wrote “Why Translation Matters” because she wanted to fight back against what she called “real attacks” by reviewers and publishers on the art of translation.
“Faulkner claimed he read “Don Quixote” once a year,” Grossman said. “Faulkner was every Latin American writer’s favorite author, especially Gabriel García Marquez. Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie were influenced by “Quixote.” That line of influence would have been impossible without translation. It allows authors to communication with each other across time and language.”
“I don’t buy that for a second” she says of the idea that translators can “betray” the author by mis-interpreting the original work. “Translation expands the language you translate into. English is enriched because you are introducing concepts and ideas that have not been used in English before.” She said only 3% of books published in English each year are literary translations and laments the loss by omission of great works of literature to English-language readers.
Grossman fielded another question often asked of translators. Why do you translate (i.e., why don’t you write yourself?) Her answer was inspiring.
“I love writing but I often can’t face the blank page.”
We can all relate to that.