In a sparkling presentation, the distinguished literary translator Edith Grossman shared her insights at CAT’s “Lit & Lunch” series in San Francisco.


In her introduction, Olivia Sears, president of the Center for the Art of Translation (CAT), told us that Ms. Grossman had not set out to become a literary translator; her dreams were more along the lines of “a sculptor, or (the blues singer) Bessie Smith.” But in recent years she has been aptly referred to as the “Glenn Gould of translation”—a reference to the famed Canadian virtuoso pianist. Earlier this year she was invited to give a series of lectures at Yale on the art, entitled, “Why Translation Matters.” A longtime resident of New York, Ms. Grossman told us she had been a student at Berkeley and was glad to be back in the Bay Area, although she missed her 24-hour jazz station.

The first part of the literary lunch was devoted to readings from books Edith Grossman has recently translated. The first, from Manuscript of Ashes, was by Spanish author Alberto Muñoz Molina, to be published by Harcourt this summer. Very evocative and atmospheric, set in part during the Spanish Civil War, it was a perfect introduction to Ms. Grossman’s skill as a translator. She then read a more humorous excerpt from Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl, published recently by Farrar Straus and Giroux, and this in turn showed her wonderful versatility and ability to take on different styles.


For translators, perhaps the most enthralling part of the presentation was the Q&A. Ms. Grossman displayed a wry, self-deprecating humor as she elaborated on a number of issues familiar to literary translators. Asked first about her relationship with publishers—and the certain clout which she can command as the translator of Cervantes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Carlos Fuentes, to name but a few—she pointed to the Vargas Llosa book and said that the publishers had agreed to display her name in large type and provide a short bio on the back flap. But when the book was published, her name was “too small, and there was no bio. The publishers apologized deeply,” she sighed, mock-wistfully. Does she have a lawyer for the negotiation of contracts? At the beginning of her translating career she had “made the mistake of swimming in shark-infested waters” and quickly learned her lesson: she now has an attorney to guide her through the “make-believe language” of publishers’ contracts.

Could she recommend a particular title to help novice translators in their career? “Guide for the Perplexed?” she quipped, and went on to elaborate that she is not an adherent of translation theory, nor does she feel that any one book can provide the guidelines better offered by the “school of servitude.” By servitude she means constant revision and editing, reading out loud, checking for accuracy—and then more revision. And, if at all possible, a cooling-off period for the manuscript to settle, before more revision.

Authors and poets

How does she pick her titles? She does not pick, but is contacted by publishers directly. In earlier years she tried recommending authors she had discovered and loved, but this, she lamented, seems to be the “kiss of death.” Now she never mentions an author to her publishers if she hopes to see him or her in English some day.

On the subject of collaboration with authors, Ms. Grossman said she finds them to be extraordinarily generous. She does not contact them until the final revision, to iron out the “ten or fifteen knotty places” remaining in the manuscript. Had it not been problematic then, translating Cervantes, since she could not question him? She laughed and said she once told García Márquez that it is easier translating Cervantes than a living author, because there is such a wealth of academic and scholarly work to refer to. But regardless of the “bodily state of the author,” she feels a huge responsibility to the writer to get it right; it is less an issue of translating actual words than of translating the author’s intention.

She does not believe you can be taught to be a translator, any more than you can learn to be a poet. The craft can be taught, she said, echoing Gregory Rabassa’s words, but to become a translator or a poet you either “have the impulse or you don’t.” Asked if she misses the sound of the language when working into English, she insisted on the necessity of putting the Spanish to one side after the second draft, to work solely on the English text; only when doing a final accuracy check does she return to the Spanish. She believes in maintaining the foreignness of proper names and place names, but does not subscribe to the position that a translation should “feel” foreign. “It should read like a domestic text” and provide the English-language reader with the same impact experienced by the Spanish language reader. If the text is in any way strange or eccentric, she tries to convey that oddness, too—but it must always read as smoothly as if it had been conceived in English.


“The author and the translator are saying the same thing in two different languages,” Ms. Grossman explained. While she hears the Spanish in her mind, it comes out in English. “It’s a mistake to think you can match words.” She illustrated her point by describing a cartoon she once saw in The New Yorker: a translator sitting across from the irate author says, “Do you not be happy of me as the translator of books of you?”

In Edith Grossman’s case, there is no counting how many happy authors— and readers—she has shared her talents with.


By Steve Goldstein

members in the news

Children of Magic Moon, Volume Two of the Magic Moon trilogy being translated by Stafford Hemmer and Barbara Guggemos, was published on October 9th. Congratulations are in order for this dynamic translating duo!

Untranslatable Words:What’s in a Title?

By Jeannette Ringold

During the February 14, 2006 NPR broadcast of “All Things Considered,” host Michele Norris interviewed the Dutch novelist Artur Japin about his latest book Een Schitterend Gebrek, which had just been translated into English as In Lucia’s Eyes. In an otherwise interesting interview that explored the difficulties of translating the title, no mention was made of the translator. We try here to fill in some of the holes.

Artur Japin found the story as a brief anecdote in the memoirs of Giacomo Casanova. It mentions Casanova’s first love, Lucia, who disappeared without warning. Mr. Japin became fascinated by the elusive Lucia, and in his novel he imagines what may have happened. Young Casanova was very hurt and wondered why he was abandoned. It turns out that Lucia was horribly disfigured by smallpox, resolved that she did not want Casanova’s pity, and decided to flee. In the novel Casanova finds her again many years later when she is a successful prostitute in Amsterdam. She always wears a veil which makes her mysterious and attractive to her customers and also hides her disfigured face.

Why the English title, In Lucia’s Eyes? Although the NPR interview made no pretense to be primarily about linguistic matters, it was nonetheless disappointing that neither the interviewer nor the author mentioned the translator, or otherwise asked how this book was “magically” transformed from Dutch into English. This is doubly regrettable since Mr. Japin was fortunate to have David Colmer, an excellent Dutch-English translator who is an author in his own right, do the translation. David Colmer’s preference for the title was A Great Imperfection.

The following excerpt from the dialogue between Ms. Norris and the author points out some problems in finding a good title in another language and culture:

Norris: I understand that the translation was particularly challenging because there is a Dutch word for deformity.*

Japin: Yes.

Norris: That lends a certain weight and surprise to Lucia’s character, but I understood there is no equivalent for that.

Japin: No, we couldn’t find, it mainly has to do with the title. I would have wanted it to be in the title.

Norris: What was the Dutch title?

Japin: Oh well … it sounds horrible. In Dutch it is Schitterend gebrek, which is like “a beautiful defect,” almost.

To illustrate the difficulty of translating this title, it is instructive to look at the various meanings of the noun “gebrek.” The standard Van Dale dictionary gives five different meanings of the word, including lack, want, shortage; hardship, deprivation; ailment, infirmity; and shortcoming, weakness.

The adjective “schitterend: brilliant, splendid, magnificent” is more straightforward, and “great” is an excellent translation.

In an email to me, David Colmer detailed some of the problems he encountered in finding a suitable title for the book. His experience is not unusual, as finding a title for a book can often be an excruciating experience. One difficulty was that numerous people were involved. In promotional material the book was first called A Splendid Flaw. The translator thought that was terrible, and fortunately everyone else thought so too. His suggestion of A Great Imperfection is what the section of the book called “Een schitterend gebrek” is still called in the translation. But the publishers rejected that for the title. David Colmer then offered “suggestion after suggestion” until they finally liked one: In Lucia’s Eyes. He regrets not keeping his list of suggestions!

My own experience in translating the Dutch novel Twee koffers vol by Carl Friedman is somewhat parallel to David Colmer’s. “Twee koffers vol” translates literally as “Two suitcases full”—too much like “two bags full” from the children’s rhyme. And the word “suitcase” is not appealing in a title. The suitcases in the novel were filled with precious belongings and were hidden from the Nazis during World War II, and one of the main characters is trying to find them again after the war. That’s why I felt that the title of the movie that was made of the book—Left Luggage—was also inappropriate, since luggage suggests travel. The author and the publisher agreed with me, and we all started compiling lists of titles; a few memorable ones were First Love and Einstein and Moles in the Violin. In the end it was the author who came up with the suggestion that pleased everyone, The Shovel and the Loom, where the shovel represents digging for the past and the loom represents the attempt to cover the past and go on with life.

Obviously, there are other considerations besides linguistic ones when seeking the appropriate title for a book. Publishers are concerned with titles that will sell, living authors have their preferences, editors have their concerns, and the translator has his or her own ideas and is often asked to translate and evaluate the various possibilities. At least there’s that!

* Editor’s note: In the original transcript, the word “no” was not included in this sentence. The author believes this to be in error.

Re-translating the Classics in Hebrew

New lessons in literature

By Merav Rozenblum

The Hebrew-language book market may be small in Israel, but it is extremely passionate. Consider that among a population of some seven million people, only about 100,000—after subtracting Arabic and Russian speakers, children, ultra orthodox Jews, and others who simply don’t read—are potential book buyers. Still, these are avid readers who need translators to quench their literary thirst.

In a country where half of all books published are translations, a typical publication run numbers about 1,500. Selling 4,000 copies of a book makes it a bestseller. Into this rather concentrated market, put a translator with the ability to work from an exotic language such as Japanese or Portuguese, or with the opportunity to translate an important novel such as the Harry Potter series or Life of Pi (by NCTA’s own Ofer Shorr), and the result is an environment in which Hebrew translators may receive recognition (if not some modest monetary rewards) that is virtually unheard of here in the States. This is especially true with regard to the current trend of re-translating much of the classic literature of the 20th century.

New perspectives

Why the re-translations? Efrat Lev, a Foreign Rights Director with The Deborah Harris Literary Agency in Jerusalem, explains that some world classics are taught in schools and there’s a real need to update the language. Modern Hebrew, after all—now about 140 years old—has developed rapidly in the past 40 years, and a 17-year-old girl today will not be attracted to a 1958 Hebrew translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. (The new translation of this Russian masterpiece became a bestseller within weeks of its publication.)

Several high-profile books have been retranslated recently in Israel, among them Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens. This book was re-translated by a well-known journalist, Irit Linor, an author in her own right, and a TV and radio personality well known for her acerbic wit. Whether it was because of her celebrity status that her name is featured prominently on the cover is open to speculation (Ms. Lev thinks it is something of a PR stunt), but the fact remains that that the translator has assumed a new prominence in this evolving author-translator-publisher relationship.

Language to the fore

In addition to Nicholas Nickleby, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh has also seen a recent re-translation (supporters of the new translation say children can understand it more easily; opponents argue the language has been dumbed down), and other classics are also receiving fresh interpretations. Gili Bar-Hillel, who gained her reputation primarily as the translator of the Harry Potter series, is working these days on a new translation of The Wizard of Oz, of which she is a long-time fan.

For Huckleberry Finn, Yaniv Farkash deliberately did not use previous translations as a reference. “The point of departure was just so different,” said Mr. Farkash. “The previous translations focused on the story; in one of them, the translator, a famous author of children’s books, even decided to omit the murder scene, thinking it wasn’t appropriate for children. I wanted to convey the text as in the original language, with all its linguistic richness.”

Most of the translators of the great Western masterpieces first published in modern Hebrew in the 50s, 60s, and 70s were poets and writers, who felt it was their duty to teach the new language to readers through their work. These translations are therefore highly poetic, using a register that might sound stilted and unnatural to many of today’s native speakers.

Mr. Farkash is very much aware of his advantage as a young native-Hebrew speaker living in 21st century Israel. It has been only in the last couple of decades that the use of slang, as well as informal and colloquial language, has been legitimized in original Hebrew literature, and even more so in local Hebrew newspapers and media.

As if to underscore this point, one of last fall’s bestsellers in Israel was a 10,000-word dictionary of Israeli slang, which not only reflects the influx of foreign words into modern Hebrew, but also illustrates the ancient language’s challenge in adapting to modern times.

New words, new ideas

The Academy for the Hebrew Language (the Israeli equivalent of the Académie Française), which generally tries to inhibit the importation and use of foreign words, often tries to invent Hebrew alternatives to these imports. In this forum, the nation’s most respected linguists offer their creations, which are then debated (often vigorously) and voted upon. A list of new words is published several times a year, and while state radio and TV are asked to use them, the requests are not binding—and often not heeded.

“Every word has its fate,” explained Avraham Tal, deputy director of the Academy, admitting that the Academy does not have a stellar record of getting its creations into the modern vernacular.

The greatest challenge in the new translation of Huckleberry Finn was in fact the treatment of language. Mr. Farkash worked closely with his editor, a privilege that only translators working with the more serious publishing houses get. They wanted the Hebrew text to be fluid, dynamic, and fun, just like the original English. Mr. Farkash used his intuition and tried to differentiate between the various voices that Twain employs. The glowing reviews that the book received attest to his success.

Literary translator as celebrity? Welcome to Israel, where this idea is not necessarily a contradiction in terms

Note: Some material sourced from the article “Hebrew Slang Pushes Aside Older Words,” by Karin Laub, Associated Press.

Crossing Cultures and Borders: At the Banff International Literary Translation Centre

By Ofer Shorr

The primary focus of Canada’s BILTC is “to afford literary translators a period of uninterrupted work within an international community of translators.” Sound too good to be true? It’s not, as Ofer Shorr found out this past summer.

“A deepening of literary translation work.”

I arrived at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Banff, Canada, on a cold and rainy June evening. Little did I know that the next day would be the beginning of the most thrilling three weeks of my professional career.

The Banff Centre for the Arts is a sprawling complex of art galleries, performance halls, and rehearsal rooms situated on a mountainside above the city of Banff in the breathtaking Canadian Rockies. Dedicated to furthering the various arts in Canada, the Centre offers stipends for artists in a wide variety of disciplines, including music, visual arts, dance, writing, and, yes, translation. During an artist’s visit – for which all expenses are paid – he or she is free to structure his own time, with free access to the Centre’s many facilities.

At the Banff International Literary Translation Centre, translators may request a joint residency with a writer, allowing the translator to consult and deepen his or her knowledge of the writer’s intentions and the context of the work being translated.

What this – forgive me – translates into, is three weeks of detachment from the problems and interruptions of the outside world, allowing for a true deepening of the literary translation work.

The Literary Translation Centre gathers translators from around the world, the only condition being that their project be focused on a Canadian writer. Our group consisted of about 20 translators from many countries, including Mexico, Holland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, and Israel (yours truly). All in all, we were working on about 15 books.

My project was Yann Martel’s The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios, which I was translating into Hebrew (I also translated his better-known recent novel, Life of Pi). I was lucky enough to have not only my Bulgarian and German colleagues working with me on the book, but also Yann Martel himself on hand.

After the tiredness passed and we got to know each other, our individual projects began in earnest. What an amazing experience! Free from the constraints of day jobs, family, and children, we were able to concentrate solely on the work at hand. Working with the other translators was absolutely thrilling – even though we usually didn’t speak each other’s language. Manfred, Magdalena, and I spent long hours honing solutions to various translation problems, such as place names, abbreviations, and colloquial language.

Working with Yann was an experience in itself. He is such a brilliant and fascinating man, and did a lot to help me understand the intricate details of his writing. In one story, for example, he gives some specific details about Canadian History. As we discussed the appropriate tone of the excerpts, it became obvious to me that they were not randomly chosen, but each expressed an overarching emotion which was echoed by what was happening at the time to the protagonist. I thus had to find a way to achieve the proper tone, balancing the documentary style of the text with the emotional burden it needed to shoulder.

As time passed, I came to an understanding, indeed a revelation, as to why translators are, in general, such a nice and unassuming bunch: always working against a text which is not yours is a humbling experience; it maps out your limits for you, reminds you that there is always someone else out there besides yourself, and so your ego cannot soar to the heavens, as very often happens to writers, for good and bad.

As three weeks drew to a close, it seems as if I could have stayed there forever. I met some amazing people and had great experiences, which I will never forget.

Translators have until December 1st, 2005 to apply for BILTC’s 2006 residency program. For more information, visit

Finding that “je ne sais quoi”: The French Literary Translation Workshop

By Olivia E. Sears

As part of an ongoing series of literary translation workshops, NCTA and the Center for the Art of Translation jointly sponsored on June 4th a French Literary Translation workshop moderated by noted local translator Zack Rogow. In this half-day workshop, Zack led an intimate group of translators through the ins and outs of literary translation, touching on both poetry and prose translation, as well as rights acquisitions and book proposals. Zack himself has worked in both commercial and literary translation, and has won several awards for his translations of great French writers (including André Breton, George Sand, and Colette). He is the new editor and artistic director of the Center’s journal of translation, TWO LINES.

The workshop began with a general introduction to the translation of poetry. Zack focused on several translations of a French sonnet, Arthur Rimbaud’s “Ma Bohème (Fantaisie).” By comparing three different English translations of the poem, Zack delved into the difficulties of translating the Petrarchan sonnet form into English: is it worth trying to achieve the same meter, or replicate the rhyme? This discussion led to an overview of the literary translator’s priorities. Zack suggested that the translator should decide which of these priorities is paramount when confronting a text: is the top priority to capture the spirit of the poem, or the literal meaning of the poem, or the music and form of the poem? To demonstrate his point, Zack broke the participants into small groups, each of which had to argue over these priorities and try to come up with a balanced translation of Rimbaud’s poem “O saisons, ô châteaux.” The results of these translations-by-committee were extremely diverse and quite amusing.

Next we turned to prose translation with a look at several different works in French: the first chapter of the satirical Micromégas by François-Marie Arouet Voltaire; a page from Colette’s Les Vrilles de la vigne; and an excerpt from André Breton’s Nadja. We discussed the tone of each piece, the form, and the voice, all aspects of the original work that must be considered prior to embarking on a translation.

The last part of the workshop focused on practical questions for the literary translator. First and foremost, how should a translator choose a project? Because literary translation doesn’t pay well, Zack urged participants to seek out authors whose style they have an affinity for and to choose a text they love. Retranslations can be rewarding, especially if there is a book a translator feels is important but that has fallen out of attention or was poorly translated. It is essential that translators revisit even classic texts periodically, particularly works with dialogue, which changes substantially over time. A new translation can help us see a text in a new light.

To close, Zack briefly discussed rights and contracts—including consulting the sample contracts created by the PEN American Center—and urged translators to push for their name to appear on the title page and the cover of the book. All in all, the participants left the workshop with renewed excitement about their craft. The Center hopes to continue the collaboration with NCTA and discuss possibilities for a variety of future workshops.