Perspective, Translation


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.