Edith Grossman is a translator, critic, and occasional teacher of literature in Spanish. She was born in Philadelphia, attended the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California at Berkeley. Completed a PhD at New York University, and has been the recipient of awards and honors including Fulbright, Woodrow Wilson, and Guggenheim Fellowships, the PEN Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Queen Sofía Translation Prize, and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Grossman has brought into English poetry, fiction, and non-fiction by major Latin American writers, including Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Álvaro Mutis, and Mayra Montero. Peninsular works that she has translated include Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, novels by Julián Ríos, Carmen Laforet, Carlos Rojas, and Antonio Muñoz Molina, poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and The Solitudes of Luis de Góngora.
She lives in Manhattan and has two sons, both of whom are musicians.
New Spanish Books was fortunate to interview Edith and ask about her beginnings, impressions and challenges in the field of Spanish to English literary translation.
How did you become a literary translator?
I began my career as a literary translator in the early 1970s, when Ronald Christ, then editor of Review, the publication of what was then the Center for Inter-American Relations and is now known as The Americas Society, asked me to translate a story by Macedonio Fernández called La cirugia de la extirpación psíquica. I told him I was a critic, not a translator; he said I could call myself whatever I liked, but he thought I’d do a good job with the piece. More out of curiosity (about Macedonio and serious translating) than for any other reason, I agreed, and have never looked back. I enjoyed the work immensely, still do, and particularly like working at home.
What are the creative requirements of literary translation? Is it necessary for a literary translator to also be a writer?
These are all essentially the same question, so I’ll reply with one answer. A literary translator is a writer who rewrites a work in another language. As a writer, a good translator is sensitive to the nuances of two different languages and is able to bridge the gap between them by finding equivalents, not exact duplicates (which don’t exist) for the first author’s turns of phrase. The tone, intention, and impact of the translation should be the same as in the original; the words and syntax can never be identical, as each language is a distinct, independent system. The first writer begins with the blank page; the second writer (the translator) begins with a written work and creates another, corresponding work in a different language.
What makes poetry translation difficult? Is there a theory behind it?
The translation of poetry is difficult for the same reasons that the writing of poetry is difficult: it is, in my mind, the most creative use of language and requires sensitivity to the sound of words as well as their sense, to rhythm, to meter and rhyme, if they’re used, to line lengths, and to the multitude of poetic techniques the languages of the world employ. If there’s a theory behind the translation of poetry, I don’t know it.
Is there fair recognition of literary translators?
The short answer is no. Translators don’t receive the recognition they deserve as the artists who open the door to the literary worlds of languages we don’t know. They are generally woefully underpaid and often have to struggle to have their name on the cover of a book.
What makes Spanish literary translation unique?
I don’t believe that translation from Spanish is different in kind from any other kind of literary translation. The translator’s knowledge is different but the process is probably the same regardless of the languages involved.
How do you deal with a Spanish word that has several meanings?
I have to decide which meaning the author had in mind and perhaps find an equally ambiguous word in English.
Are all books translatable?
Yes, I believe everything can be translated. I’ve been told that the Inuit has thousands of words for snow. They can all probably be translated but certainly would require more than a single word in English. The same is true for the countless words in Arabic for sand.
What is the state of translation in the US? What is the state of translating Spanish literary works into English?
The English-speaking world is, for reasons I cannot fathom, very resistant to translation. Only 2-3 percent of books published in both the United States and the United Kingdom each year are literary translations, as opposed to the statistics in the rest of the industrialized world, where the numbers range from 35-50 percent. Certainly the dominant position of English today can explain some, but not all, of this phenomenon. Those who suffer the most as a result are English-language readers, who are denied access to important literature in a multitude of languages.
If you could achieve one concrete goal with the publication of your book "Why Translation Matters?" what would it be?
I would like to achieve two goals with this book. The first, to help readers become more conscious of the importance of translation in the perpetuation of literature. An example of this would be the significance of English-language writers, especially William Faulkner, in the development of Gabriel García Márquez as a novelist, and the significance of García Márquez in the writing of younger novelists around the world. The second is to remind reviewers that a translation has two authors, and ignoring or dismissing the second—that is, the translator—is misleading and unhelpful to their readers.
How would you describe García Márquez’s influence in the literary world?
García Márquez is one of the great novelists of the 20th century and has had a huge influence on authors around the world. A few in English who surely wouldn’t write the way they do if they hadn’t read García Márquez, probably in translation, include Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, and Michael Chabon.
From your intimate knowledge of their work, what is your opinion of the Latin American authors of the ‘60s and ‘70s, the so called Latin American Literary Boom.
The “Boom” produced startling writers from all over Latin America. It was one of those inexplicable moments when a country or a culture experiences an explosion of creativity—the Renaissance in Italy, the Golden Age in Spain, and the Boom in Latin America. The names of the authors resonate with every reader: Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and of course Gabriel García Márquez, to mention only a few.
What work have you enjoyed the most translating?
I can’t say which book I’ve enjoyed most. I’ve been very lucky and have liked, and often loved, every work I’ve translated.
Who has been the most challenging author to translate? What was the most difficult work?
The most challenging author and most difficult work I’ve translated is The Solitudes of Luis de Góngora. And perhaps because I had been interested in working on this extremely complex poem for years, actually translating the book and seeing it published gave me immense satisfaction.
Is there an author that you have yet to translate who you would love to translate?
I think I’d like to do a volume of Quevedo’s sonnets. He’s a master of the form, and I find these poems extraordinary.
Why has your work been focused on Latin American authors and not Spaniards?
I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Nicanor Parra, the Chilean antipoet, and my degree specialization was contemporary Latin American writing. In more recent years, however, I’ve translated books by Spaniards like Carmen Laforet, Julián Ríos, Antonio Muñoz Molina, and Carlos Rojas, and in the classic period, Miguel de Cervantes and Luis de Góngora. I also translated an anthology of Golden Age poets that included works by Jorge Manrique, Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León, Lope de Vega, Luis de Góngora, Francisco de Quevedo, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
What are you working on at the moment? What are your future projects?
I’m working now on an anthology of Sor Juana’s writing, and a future project is Cervantes’s complete exemplary novels, or novellas.
What advice would you give an aspiring literary translator?
My advice to an aspiring translator is to keep reading and writing. Your knowledge of English is exceedingly important, since it allows you to find stylistic equivalents for whatever work you’re translating. Perhaps even more important is to love the process of translating: it’s a difficult and time-consuming way to spend your days, and devotion to the writing turns what’s arduous into a challenge.
A fascination with the Spanish language has marked the course of my life. It started at age twelve when I had to choose a...