Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Bravo, Grossman!

The typical translator's status can be likened to a ghost writer's — an appendage obscure and underpaid. Like ghost writers, they often receive flat fees and no royalties. Reviewers often overlook them or faintly praise them — and this drives Grossman crazy — for "ably" translating the original text.

"`Ably translated,' compared to what?" asks Grossman, whose "Why Translation Matters," a brief, forceful defense of her profession, is being released by Yale University Press. "The reviewer clearly doesn't read Spanish. How would they know if it is ably translated? They quote long passages to indicate the style of the writer and never credit the translator."


Grossman would know: she has translated such works as Miguel de Cervantes' 'Don Quixote' and Gabriel Garcia Marquez' 'Love in the Time of Cholera'.

In "Why Translation Matters," Grossman writes of taking on the opening phrase of the first chapter of "Don Quixote," among the most famous words in Spanish literature: "En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme," which in an earlier English-language edition was translated into, "In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind."

Grossman worked on the phrase by reciting the Spanish to herself, "mantralike." She reached for the right mood and rhythm, to recapture how it struck those who read "Quixote" centuries ago. She pondered the word "lugar," which can mean either village or place. The words came to her, like lyrics to a song: "Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember."

Grossman, who turns 74 in March, is curly haired and plainspoken, her voice still flavored by her childhood in a Yiddish-speaking neighborhood in Philadelphia. She had an early interest in languages — although she hardly remembers a word of Yiddish — and by high school was thinking about becoming an interpreter, "which suggested travel, exotic places, important events, world-shaking conferences at the United Nations," she writes in "Why Translation Matters."

Why Translation Matters argues for the cultural importance of translation and for a more encompassing and nuanced appreciation of the translator’s role. As the acclaimed translator Edith Grossman writes in her introduction, “My intention is to stimulate a new consideration of an area of literature that is too often ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented.”

For Grossman, translation has a transcendent importance: “Translation not only plays its important traditional role as the means that allows us access to literature originally written in one of the countless languages we cannot read, but it also represents a concrete literary presence with the crucial capacity to ease and make more meaningful our relationships to those with whom we may not have had a connection before. Translation always helps us to know, to see from a different angle, to attribute new value to what once may have been unfamiliar. As nations and as individuals, we have a critical need for that kind of understanding and insight. The alternative is unthinkable.”

Throughout the four chapters of this bracing volume, Grossman’s belief in the crucial significance of the translator’s work, as well as her rare ability to explain the intellectual sphere that she inhabits as interpreter of the original text, inspires and provokes the reader to engage with translation in an entirely new way.

The full interview with Grossman can be read online. The book can be purchased directly from the publisher's website.

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