Multilingual Wordsmiths Part 3: Edith Grossman on Reading in Spanish and the Pitfalls of Literalism (2023)

IF YOU SPEAK AND READ ENGLISHLove in times of choleraby Gabriel Garcia Marquez; orderThe Feast of the Goatby Mario Vargas Llosa; or the poetry of Luis de Góngora, Ariel Dorfman or the visionary Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz; so you've probably read these works in English rather than Spanish through the superbly calibrated filter of Edith Grossman's translation. Some of the other highlights of its half-century of excellence include another Spanish novel you may have heard of: Miguel de Cervantes.Don Quixote🇧🇷 In his moving non-fiction bookWhy is translation important?, Grossman explains that this intricate art and vocation “help us to know, to see from a different angle and to attribute a new value to what was previously unknown”. She writes, "The alternative is unthinkable." Still, when Grossman was growing up in Philadelphia, it was hard to imagine that she would become one of the most talented and respected Spanish translators in the world. At home, English was the only language spoken, with a generous sprinkling of Yiddish and a light dash of Hungarian. In our conversation, she revisits the beginnings of her love for the Spanish language, recalls her proudest literary milestones and explains that “writing a translation is an intuitive and linguistic act”.


LIESL SCHILLINGER: Are you multilingual?

EDITH GROSSMANN: I got a little linguistic; I spoke mostly English, but when my parents wanted to say something I didn't understand, they spoke Yiddish, and my mother, when she got really mad, swore in Hungarian; but I never quite understood what they were saying. I knew a few words of Yiddish because I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Philadelphia. The only time I spoke Yiddish was when I was in Istanbul and the taxi driver spoke German and I spoke Yiddish and we figure out where we're going and how much it costs. But I think the real answer was that I grew up monolingual.

What languages ​​do you translate from?

Spanish only.

What attracted you to the Spanish language?

In my troubled career as a pre-college student, the only teacher I could tolerate was my high school Spanish teacher, so I decided that whatever she did, I would do it. That was in Philadelphia. I majored in Spanish in college and did my thesis on Spanish and Latin American literature. I went to the University of Pennsylvania, then I went to UC Berkeley for a few years, and then I got my Ph. D. at New York University.

Why did you decide to start translating?

In a way, it wasn't my choice. A friend of mine, Ronald Christ, edited the magazineCheck, previously published by what is now the Americas Society. Ronald asked me to translate a story for the magazine and I said to him, 'Ronald, I'm not a translator, I'm a critic,' and he said, 'Your name is whatever you want; Just translate the damn piece for me. It was the work of an Argentine, Macedonio Fernández: he was from the pre-Borges generation, he was the age of Borges' father, and he was probably the most eccentric writer and man I have met in my long career. He wrote amazing stuff and my translation ended up being the first prose ever to be translated into English, I didn't even know it at the time. I think it must have been in the early 1970'spsychic removal surgery, which was an operation that could remove eight minutes of memory.

Oh, like in the moviesEternal Sunshine of the Memoryless Mind?

Yea! I mean, it's very strange, very funny, but it's not really funny: it's scary when you remove your memory. I started translating more and more and found that I really enjoyed it and that I could work from home, which is my favorite place to work, so over the years I did it more and more. I worked part-time as a translator, but my job at Sunlight was teaching at universities. I taught at New York University on multiple campuses, on the CUNY campus and at a small upstate Catholic university called Dominican. So one day I decided to quit teaching and become a full-time translator, and one of my Knopf editors asked me, "Can you really live on what you earn as a translator?" I said, "I have bean recipes from 2001, so this will work." I still teach now, but only one class a year at Columbia. I love teaching, I just don't like being a full-time academic. I love being in the classroom, I really do, and I teach creative writing at the MFA.

How did you come to translate Gabriel García Márquez?

Knopf called me and asked me to translate the work of García MárquezLove in times of cholera🇧🇷 I think it came out in the late 80's or early 90's and it opened a lot of doors for me. I've been translating for many years, but when this novel became so successful and I was recognized as García Márquez's translator, it was a wonderful moment for me, both professionally and personally.

What do you like to translate?

What I like most is that it gives me the opportunity to write every day and I'm never left with a blank page; I always have a page full of words. Also, I really expose an author's bones when I translate their work. When I read it as a general reader I say, "That was great"; but when I translate it, I'm like, "Oh my god, this is great." I've always felt this.

Do you write fiction?

no Every time I tried, it condensed into a poem. I've tried fiction and I can't.

What do you not like about the translation?

You mean sitting in front of the computer and having sore fingers? Does my back hurt a lot? Sitting for that long is hard; You have to get up every hour. There are times when I translate seven days a week. I worked seven hours a day when I was younger, but now I work five. I have just finished the collection of Cervantes novels; there are 12 of them, and the last time the complete collection was published in English was in 1885, so it's like they've never been translated before. The book is calledexemplary novels🇧🇷 And I'm working on a wonderful novel right now by a guy named Carlos Rojas, who is Spanish but lives in Atlanta. It's hard to explain because of the fantastical elements, but it saysworth two fallen, which, as you know, is the monument that Franco erected for himself and for the Spanish fascists killed after the war on the side of the Escorial. Felipe II built the Escorial, a monument to Catholic Spain, and Franco did the same with the monument to Fascist Spain. The main character is an art historian named Vasari who writes about Goya; I don't remember exactly how it works in the book, but what ends up happening is that there's a confusion between Franco and Ferdinand VII, who was the worst and most reactionary of the restored monarchs after the Napoleonic Wars. There was a whole generation of romantic poets who ended up in England because they couldn't stay in Spain, it was such a repressive regime.

Do you have a favorite translation?

I'm really proud of myselfDon Quixote🇧🇷 Then the poetry of Luis de Góngora. I made your bookLos Soledads which is probably the most difficult poem in any language. And I also compiled some of his shorter poems and sonnets into an anthology.

I read this Gabriel Garcthere goneMárquez said he prefers his translations to the originals.

He was a very kind man, he said the same to Gregory Rabassa. [Rabassa translated García Márquez'sOne hundred years of Solitude, among other works by the author.]

What do you like about translating the works of living authors?

The advantage of translating a living author is that you can ask him questions. But I can't get to the end. I really leave them alone because I feel like once they've written the book, they're done, they move on to the next one, so what I'm asking of them gets them back to the job that they have. already completed and wish I could finish it now. I speak to them at the end and ask them to clarify their intentions at some points in the book that I'm not sure about.

When translating an already translated book, do you consult previous translations?

I never look at the other translations, I don't want to have another translator's voice in my ear, I want to face the text alone.

Is this different from Lydia Davis? She told me that you and she once had different approaches.

To critique of Parisposted a dialogue between her and me, and we went in completely different directions. I think at some point he read every translation of Flaubert he could get his hands on. I feel the opposite: I don't want that other voice in my head.

Ah; In fact, Lydia Davis told me that she doesn't look at previous translations while working alone. When you look at it, it's right after. Will you check out the other translations later?

The answer is no. It took me about two years to translate thisQuixote, and after I finished the first part I thought I could start looking for other translations and use them as dictionaries: my children had left school books in my apartment. But every time I looked up two different translations of the word that was bothering me, the translations were different, so it didn't help me at all.

How about reading the book you are translating first? Lydia said no, but she thinks you used to. what is your process

It varies a little. I wrote books like hers and started translating them before I read them. Sometimes it's a matter of time and deadlines. Reading a book takes time, and I prefer to spend that time translating. I find that in first drafts, the beginning is often the weakest part of my translations. Whatever is wrong comes at the beginning, when I'm still not sure what the voice should be; I'm realizing this as I'm working on the book. There are many drafts, more drafts than I care to count.

I translate as carefully as possible for the first draft because the more careful I am in the beginning, the less time I have to spend on final proofreading, but as a professional proofreader I always question myself. So I do my best on the first draft and when I come back it's never good enough, so I go over it at least two or three times, then when I send it I get the corrected version and it continues. until they say it's ready.

Do you read the books you've translated after they're available?

I try really hard not to read my books, but when I teach them, I have to read them. But I wouldn't read them for fun.

What makes a good translation?

It's how convenient English translation is when we talk about English translation. There is something called a "translator", an invented language that does not exist in the world. There's a wonderful cartoon that has a picture of a very unhappy writer and a very confused translator, and the caption says, "Aren't you happy with me as a translator for your books?"

What makes a bad translation?

Literally, word for word, getting stuck in the literal thought that if you do this it will be more accurate or more faithful, and of course it's not. Translations are not done on tracing paper, and two languages ​​cannot fit in the same space at the same time, so adjustments and changes must be made to convert one language to another.

Why should English speakers read translated works? What do you get by reading novels from foreign cultures?

If we don't, we cut ourselves off from most of the world. English is the dominant language these days, but not everyone writes in English and we tend to be a small town with translations. I think if you were to talk to editors in New York, you would find that the foreign languages ​​they speak include Spanish and French, maybe a little German, maybe a little Russian, and everything else is exotic, and generally no contact with cultures. and literatures of these languages. We get hurt a lot when we don't read what the rest of the world is writing.

Do you think translators receive little attention in the literary world, and if so, is that changing?

I think they get little attention; It was a huge struggle for me to get my name on the cover of a book because American publishers didn't want the public to know that the book they were buying was a translation. They got the idea that Americans weren't interested in reading translations, so they wanted to somehow hide the fact that it was a translated book. Soon I started hiring a lawyer to negotiate the contracts. As I tell my students, when you hire a publisher, you hire a corporation, and they have offices full of lawyers. Therefore, before signing a contract, you need to hire a lawyer who knows how to interpret legal language. Legal language is designed to obfuscate; it is not intended to be understood by ordinary people.

What is your title besides translator?

I teach writing classes at Columbia, I'm an adjunct professor in the translation department of the writing department, and I have students who are interested in translation.

Are there bachelor's degrees in translation these days?

When I started there was no translation course; Nowadays, more and more universities offer translation courses, whether you manage to graduate there or not.

Are you optimistic about the future of translation?

It depends on how I'm feeling on any given day. If I feel that there is a future for good writing, a future for fiction and poetry, then I think translation is part of it. But on the days when I think that in 10 years only an electronic image will interest anyone, then I think that's the end of literature. It depends on the day you pick me up.

How many books have you translated, rotunda?

Someone recently told me it's 60, but I don't know if it's true. I have been doing this for many years.

Which of your translations did you most enjoy working on?

I'll get back to itDon Quixote, which in my opinion is the best novel ever written in any language, in any century: what Cervantes touched he turned to gold. He is a remarkable genius; he defines things as Shakespeare defines them for us. You can't think of theater without thinking of Shakespeare's plays, and Cervantes is equally important to the novel.

Have you translated female authors?

Oh yeah! One of them is Mayra Montero. She is a wonderful author; He is of Cuban origin and lives in Puerto Rico. I translated six or seven of her novels. And Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th-century Mexican nun who was a poet. He wrote some spectacular sonnets and other poetic forms. She has a very long poem, comparable to that of Luis de Góngora.Soledad, I callfirst dream🇧🇷 It is very difficult poetry, but very beautiful. Brilliantly self-taught, she knew a lot about music, math and science. She entered a convent as a teenager, but at one point the Bishop of Puebla attacked her in writing, writing a letter disguised as a nun and saying: It's not so bad for a talented woman to waste her time on worldly matters when entering the Bible Watching Ser Juana wrote a response that is a very famous document in the history of feminism: She defends women's rights to read, write, study, teach and use their minds. She said, and I paraphrase, "Your mind is not an act of your will, it is a gift from God and not something you can deny." Then he said that without worldly knowledge one cannot read the Bible. It's impressive: it goes through several moments in biblical literature where you can't understand what is being said unless you know math and music. You have to read this Liesl, it's a wonderful document. The result, of course, was that they punished her and forced her to sell her library - they estimated that she had the largest library in Mexico - and forced her to stop studying and give up everything in life. She truly was a pioneer.

Can you complete this sentence? A translation is considered the originalxIs forj

The relationship between the translation and the original is the link between the mirror image and the living body. Cervantes spoke of the translation intoQuixote🇧🇷 He said reading a translation is like looking at a tapestry from behind, you see all the threads hanging down. I believe that writing a translation is an intuitive and linguistic act.

Who is the Spanish author that people don't read but should?

Carlos Rojas, who I consider to be a brilliant novelist. He wrote a lot in Spanish. Likewiseworth two fallenI translated another book of yours,The noble genius and poet Federico García Lorca descends into hell– Cervantes calls Don Quijote a “brilliant gentleman”. I think Rojas should be much better known than he is. He is very imaginative, very original and tremendously intelligent, and he is still alive: a living author in our own country.


Liesl Schillinger is a New York-based critic and translator.

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