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Edith Grossman Frowns: On the Challenges of Translation in America

“We English-speakers are not interested in translations,” says translator Edith Grossman. “I don’t believe that this will change soon…”

By Hernán Iglesias Illa

(This story, translated from Spanish by Fred Kobrak, was originally published in La Nación, a daily newspaper in Buenos Aires.)

Edith Grossman

Edith Grossman, the Glenn Gould of translators

As a teenager, when I started to read novels in translation, I ran so often into expressions like “fruncir el ceño,” “entrecerrar los ojos” and “encogerse de hombros” that I thought they were common usage in Spanish. Only later, when I learned that Spanish-language writers didn’t use them (or they shouldn’t), I realized that these phrases had been made up by the translators, who had agreed to translate some words the same way. Later, when my English got better, I found out that “fruncir el ceño” is to frown, “entrecerrar los ojos” is to squint and “encogerse de hombros” is to shrug. Noticing that English uses five letters where it takes Spanish twenty or twenty-five letters do to the same job, I wondered if English was a more efficient or economical language than Spanish.

“No, no. All languages are equally efficient. That is why they exist and why people use them.” The respondent, not very seduced by my reasoning, is Edith Grossman, the translator into English of Gabriel García Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa and the latest and much-praised version of Don Quixote (2003). “What is true, though, is that English has an enormous vocabulary, four or five times bigger than Spanish, French, Italian or Portuguese,” she says, in her Manhattan apartment.

“Five times bigger?,” I ask, probably frowning. “Yes. That’s because there never was an Academy of the English Language and, for the same reason, there never was any censorship banning the import of words from other languages. English is full of words that come from Spanish, Italian, Yiddish and Native American languages. We import words from all over the world.” One of these words, not very honorable, comes from Buenos Aires, where I grew up. In English, the military government of an exotic country is known as a “junta,” just like in Spanish.

Grossman, who Harold Bloom has called “the Glenn Gould of translators,” could spend hours savoring and sifting through the minimal aspects of the art of translation. In recent years, however, she has dedicated a good chunk of her energy in a crusade to defend the literary and human value of her profession. Last year she published Why Translation Matters (Yale University Press), a polemic and manifesto where she denounces the indifference of English-speaking editors, reviewers, academics and readers when faced with novels originally published in foreign languages.

Why Translation Matters

In her book, Grossman mentions the well-known fact that only three percent of the books published in the United States, Great Britain and Australia are translations, while in Europe and Latin America this percentage number fluctuates between 25% and 40%. “We English-speakers are not interested in translations,” says Grossman. (An interviewer infected with translators’ jargon would have commented that Grossman said this “with a sigh”, or “shaking her head.“) “I don’t believe that this will change soon, since almost all publishers are part of large corporations and make their decisions under enormous pressure to be profitable.”

I mention then that a few small and medium US publishers have recently published translations of books by César Aria, Alejandro Zambra and Juan José Saer. “I love these publishers, and they have good people working there,” she says. “But they are too small, they have a lot of trouble getting adequate distribution and good publicity or reviews in the media.”

In spite of everything, in the English-language world new translations of classical works sometimes get the same attention given to new novels. Grossman’s Quixote was a major event in the world of letters, just like Lydia Davis’s new translation of Madame Bovary was last year. A few months ago, Julian Barnes wrote a long review of Davis’s version, comparing it with half a dozen earlier translations. In Barnes’ view, translations in the last few decades have become more accurate but also more cumbersome and less fluid. Barnes said that new translators, wanting to reflect in more detail the author’s original intention, had forgotten how to write well in their own language.

Grossman smiles a little nervously. “Barnes is a very special character,” she says in Spanish, and refuses to give an opinion, probably out of professional courtesy. But she doesn’t hide that her translation ideology has little to do with exactitude. In Why Translation Matters, she wrote that “fidelity is the noble purpose, the utopian ideal, of the literary translator, but let me repeat: faithfulness has little to do with what is called literal meaning.”

Is that ideology followed by a majority or a minority of literary translators? “Most of us [translators] know very well that there is no such thing as a literal translation. No one wants to read a book written in a language that doesn’t exist. You know that when you do a literal translation you are inventing a new language which no one speaks or reads. When you do a translation from Spanish into English, you have to write the translation in English.“

In her book, Grossman — who translated Vargas Llosa’s The Feast of the Goat and García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and started in her profession in 1973 with a short story by Macedonio Fernandez — tells a story that happened to Gregory Rabassa, another major translator from Spanish to English, which illustrates this point very well. Rabassa was being interviewed by a Colombian journalist after having translated One Hundred Years of Solitude. The reporter asked him if his Spanish was good enough to translate someone as talented as García Márquez. After a short pause, Rabassa responded: “What’s really good is my English.”

Grossman fell in love with Spanish as a teenager, thanks to a Spanish teacher “who was very good.” She read Don Quixote for for the first time in Philadelphia, where she grew up, in Samuel Putnam’s classic 1949 translation.

The half-century gap between Putnam’s version and hers can be seen from the very first sentence of the book. Putnam translates the legendary beginning of Cervantes (“En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme”) as: “In a village of La Mancha the name of which I have no desire to recall.” It’s an accurate translation, but somewhat clumsy, and that feels a bit dated. Grossman, less forced to follow the literality of the sentence and with an ear more attuned to capture Cervantes’ intention, writes: “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember”.

This “I do not care,” disdainful and conversational, reflects much better the mocking spirit of Don Quixote’s narrator, who from the first sentence introduces himself as an unreliable guy.

Is all these subtlety worthwhile? For Grossman, there is no doubt. “The importance of translation is self-evident,” she writes in her book. Maybe that’s why she feels bad about her battered professional colleagues, “poorly paid and with no job security.” She describes most of them as people “who do not look for fame or fortune but do their work out of love for literature.“

For Grossman, translation is much more than this: translation makes us better people, because it opens our minds and allows a better understanding between cultures. In a key passage of Why Translations Matters she says: “Translation expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless indescribable ways.” It’s impossible to know which gesture she made when she wrote this fragment, but she probably nodded. Or, as a Spanish translator would have put it, “asintió con la cabeza.”

DISCUSS: Does Translation Make Us Better People?

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  1. Posted August 29, 2011 at 4:39 am | Permalink

    Translation is SO important, it opens new windows on the world! It’s as simple as that: it makes your world bigger, more beautiful!

    I’m so glad Publishing Perspectives wrote about this and put forward Edith Grossman’s excellent fight for both the importance of translation and a better, more respectful treatment of translators. I know on a personal level how important it is: my great-grand-uncle, André Ruyters, a friend of André Gide and a writer in his own right, became famous in France when he translated Conrad from the English, introducing his wonderful novels to the French public (that was back in the last century!). Because of course, it’s not just English-speaking people who are hostile to literature in another language…So are the French! But these obstacles can be surmounted, and thanks to good translators, brought down for the greater Good of Humanity…

  2. David
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 4:46 am | Permalink

    Barnes’s misgivings have to do with fluency discourse and translators’ reaction against it. Lawrence Venuti writes with depth and clarity about the challenges facing the modern translator. Read his ‘The Teanslator’s Invisibility’ for the most comprehensive overview of the situation.

  3. michael erard
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    Is there a link to the version in La Nacion?

  4. Posted August 29, 2011 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    If it weren’t for translation, I probably would not have become a fiction writer. Translations of Robbe-Grillet, Thomas Bernhard, Jean Genet, Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino, Nathalie Surrault, Georgio Manganelli, and others awakened me to the fact that the novel, as it’s been and still is in America, was not a dead form stuck in the 19th century. I took hear that, yes, it remained a form open to innovation.

  5. Hannah Johnson
    Posted August 29, 2011 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    @michael Here is the link to the original article in La Nacion: http://www.lanacion.com.ar/1391109-edith-grossman-frunce-el-ceno. We’ve added it at the top of the article as well.

  6. Posted August 29, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Noting that her manifesto was published by a university press, I’m wondering how much credit Grossman gives to university presses for supporting translations as an important cultural activity. Some presses, indeed, like Northwestern, have dedicated much of their editorial programs to translations. Some, like Chicago, have used innovative ways to fund translations. These include not just works of scholarship but fiction and poetry as well.

  7. Posted August 29, 2011 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for writing and publishing this interview! I’m teaching writing at a small secondary school in Mexico but am a native English speaker. This topic is exactly what I was hoping to introduce to my students.

  8. guisante
    Posted August 30, 2011 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

    What the hell is wrong with ‘encogerse de hombros’, ‘entrecerrar los ojos’ or ‘fruncir el ceño’?? Those are perfectly valid spanish expressions.

  9. Posted September 17, 2011 at 3:07 pm | Permalink

    necesito contactarme con Edith Grossman

  10. Leticia Orosco
    Posted October 17, 2011 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

    Me encanta como se expresa Edith…hay alguna manera de contactarte?
    I absolutely agree with Edith… how can I contact her/

  11. Posted March 3, 2012 at 1:37 am | Permalink

    I am a 71 year old Hispanic writer, but I live in California for more than 25 years. I would like to communicate with Edith Grossman. I beg you, please yo facilitate this communication. I am willing to call her on the phone, email her or receive an email from her. I want to propose the translation of one novel of mine that already has been published in France, in French, of course, with a very good review by Mathiew Lindon, in the Liberation news paper (see: http://www.liberation.fr/livres/01012297499-aguirre-la-colere-du-diable ).
    Help me please, I do not have too much time in front of me, remember I am 71.
    I thank you in advance for your time and your attention,

  12. Posted March 27, 2012 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I mean there is a lot to be said for community translations, especially in areas where companies do not deem it necessary to localize for other markets (such as fansubs of Japanese anime etc.) or there simply isn’t a company behind a product (open source software anyone?). But if you are running a business and trying to make the most out of the opportunities presnted by globalization, using professional translation services is the only way to go.

    Luckily, I can’t see machines taking over the jobs of human translators in the near future, as they have done with so many other professions (remember telephone operators?)


  13. Sarah
    Posted April 4, 2012 at 7:25 am | Permalink

    This is a quite interesting article. I totally agree with Grossman´s comment saying “Translation expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless indescribable ways”. That is a really beautiful sentences. That makes it, in my view, all the more regrettable when saying that English-speakers are not interested in translations. There exist a number of high quality translation serviceswhich brings us closer the source language and guarantee a well done translation which sounds natural.

  14. David Bean
    Posted May 24, 2012 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

    I think Grossman was referring to translations of novels, plays, etc., and not business letters or tweets, celebrity gossip, etc. There is a major difference.

  15. Paul Sabino
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    David Bean, you have lost your marbles.
    Language lives, it reflects the life of the speakers, which is not just novels and plays, I go to work every 5 days of the week, and quite often also saturday and sunday too!
    To paraphrase, “don’t translate what I said, translate what I lived!”
    Capish? The language to argue in, is italian..
    Old spanish joke, ‘dont give a Bible to an englishman, he will read it and start another church!’
    How many translations of the Bible? I know and remember the KJV!
    Now, does Quixotismo go back to Biblical values of helping a neighbour, a stranger, of upholding higher moral ground?
    Puting the cart before the horse, was Jesus Christ the ultimate Quixote?
    Is Christianity behind Quixotismo?
    ( I have not read the book )
    I am not ashamed of the Crusades, the moors attacked Europe on the left, as far as Tours, and on the right as far as Vienna, yes, Vienna. So the Crusades, a right straight punch to the middle, is a correct counter attack. I know enough history to know that I have the right to be anti-jihadists.

  16. Luz
    Posted April 10, 2013 at 3:36 am | Permalink

    Thank you very much for the article. I’ve always loved translation but seen from her point of view is much more exciting.
    The only argument I don’t agree with is the one about the fact of our having an Academy of the Spanish Language to support the idea of being a less rich language than English. We’ve also imported words from other languages, including English and ,that means there never was any censorship banning it.

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