Book Review: Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters

A fascinating glimpse into the vital necessity of translating the literature of other times and places.

Grossman: Fidelity yes, but “translation is not made with tracing paper” | Photo: Drexel Publishing

Author Edith Grossman:

Grossman: Fidelity yes, but “translation is not made with tracing paper” | Photo: Drexel Publishing

Words in the Looking Glass

I first discovered the voice of Edith Grossman while revelling in her translation of Gabriel García Márquez’, Love in the Time of Cholera. Of course I thought I was reading Márquez, but since I was not reading Spanish, I was actually reading Grossman. And while not conscious of this at the time, it is now clear to me that Grossman not merely translated, she “transmitted” the world of Márquez to me, transporting me into his luscious story of nearly unrequited love.

In the introduction to her elegant little book, Why Translation Matters, Grossman seeks to describe what a translator does, delving into a number of murky questions. Despite being an impassioned translator, she first asks herself whether translation even matters at all. And if it does, to whom? There are many parts to the puzzle: the author, the translator, the reader, the publishers and reviewers. She even considers the long-flaunted opinion that translation is impossible.

Is a translation merely a reflection in a clouded looking glass that will never mirror the true original? Is a translator merely a well-honed tool, a boring human machine soon to be replaced by Google Translate?

Why Translation Matters answers these and many other questions with a lyrical eloquence that is graceful and inspiring. In the process, Grossman reveals her passion for translating and gives us a very good idea of her craft. As she describes the best moments in her work: “On occasion… I have been lucky enough to hit the sweet spot, when I can begin to imagine that the author and I have started to speak together – never in unison, certainly, but in a kind of satisfying harmony.”

“Translation is a strange craft, generally appreciated by writers, undervalued by publishers, trivialized by the academic world, and practically ignored by reviewers.” In the first chapter she gives examples of all these attitudes, with careful arguments that are both powerful and intimate.

Translators not only get little credit, they are often maligned to boot: On the one hand, they create so-called “unfaithful beauties” (les belles infidèles), on the other, traduttore traditore, to translate is to betray. According to Robert Frost, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” Grossman discusses this problem: “Of all the interpretive arts, it is fascinating and puzzling to realize that only translation has to fend off the insidious, damaging question of whether or not it is, can be or should be possible.” Luckily she does not linger here. Rather she develops her thoughts into a political plea: In “a world where both isolationism and rampaging nationalism are on the rise”, translation may be “one of the ways past a menacing babble of incomprehensible tongues and closed frontiers into the possibility of mutual comprehension”.

Grossman is a prize-winning translator of some of the most important Latin American authors of the last century, most notably Nobel Prize laureates Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Indeed, as she points out dryly in Why Translation Matters, it is nearly impossible for an author to win the Nobel Prize unless he or she has been translated into English. To be sure, this is one reason for literary works to be translated, at least from the viewpoint of authors writing in “obscure” languages.

Of course Spanish is not obscure, but nevertheless, I for one cannot read it, much as I would like to. Nor will I in my lifetime ever gain even an inkling of the 6,000 languages extant on our globe, of which, as Grossman tells us, hypothetically 1,000 are written. We are in awe of someone who can read only ten languages, and even they often depend on translations. We all do.

The second chapter is entitled “Translating Cervantes”. Grossman’s highly acclaimed 2003 translation of Don Quixote follows a long tradition of English translations of this work that go back to the 17th century. But as the New York Times reviewer commented, hers is the “most transparent and least impeded” of them all, certainly an endorsement that might inspire a re-reading. It is in this chapter that Grossman begins to take flight; here we see her joy in discovery and doing, the best reasons for pursuing a true vocation.

While it is literature that Grossman translates, her observations are often just as applicable for translations of ancient religious texts in dead languages, or legal documents of the EU in all of its 23 languages. As she describes her work: “…we have to probe into layers of purpose and implication, weigh and consider each element within its literary milieu and stylistic environment, and make the great leap of faith into the inventive rewriting of both text and context in alien terms.” It is that leap of faith that Grossman seems to enjoy most.

In the third chapter, Grossman gets into the nitty-gritty of translating poetry. Far from a resigned Frostian “poetry is untranslatable”, we are shown a few detailed examples of her solutions to knotty problems: How she translates the hendecasyllabic (11-syllabled) lines  of 16th and 17th century Spanish poetry into the iambic pentameter so common to English (the daDum daDum of “Jack and Jill went up the hill”). Or how she she tries to keep the feeling of Spanish’s rolling multi-syllabled accents despite English’s preponderantly (Germanic) mono-syllabic lexicon. She zealously discusses tempo, rhyme schemes, rhythmic structures, and demands of syntax. And perhaps the most important of all when translating poetry, the “subliminal aesthetic pull between the tension of anticipation or expectation and its satisfaction or release.” Yet in all these seemingly technical discussions, there remains a clear lightness: Like any virtuoso, she makes her art seem easy and effortless.

Why Translation MattersWhy Translation Matters is one of a relatively new series of books being published by Yale University Press: Why X Matters. The titles range from people (Why Arendt Matters) to history (Why the Dreyfus Affair Matters) to art (Why Architecture Matters). It is a gratifying attempt at offsetting a world where, it often seems, the only thing that matters is money.

In translation, is the quintessence of a text lost? According to Grossman, and I think anyone who believes that our feelings, thoughts and dreams can be expressed in words at all, it certainly is not. And as Grossman answers her own initial question, it most certainly does matter. It does because dialogue, in this case between two languages, “is crucial to our sense of ourselves as humans”.

“Where literature exists, translation exists. Joined at the hip, they are absolutely inseparable and, in the long run, what happens to one happens to the other. Despite all the difficulties the two have faced, sometimes separately, usually together, they need and nurture each other, and the long-term relationship, often problematic but always illuminating, will surely continue for as long as they both shall live.”


Why Translation Matters
by Edith Grossman
Yale University Press (2010)
pp. 135

Available at Shakespeare & Company
1., Sterngasse 2,
(01) 535-50530

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