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Edith Grossman on translation

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Yale University Press launched its “Why X Matters” series in 2010, each volume designed to present “a concise argument for the continuing relevance of an important person or idea”. So far the series contains volumes on the US Constitution, architecture, poetry, the Dreyfus affair, the philosopher Hannah Arendt, and the religious thinker Reinhold Niebuhr. It also contains a volume on translation published in 2010 and written by the American literary translator Edith Grossman, who has translated such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. Strangely, this concise book left me with the impression that Grossman was not so much answering the question as to why translation matters, but also and perhaps especially the question as to why translation matters to her. This is not a bad thing, however. On the contrary. It’s precisely because it does matter to her that she makes a convincing case for translation in general.

After a brief introduction in which she explains how she got into literary translation, the first chapter sketches a picture of the relations between writers, translators and readers and establishes the central importance of translation. The second chapter concentrates on her approach to translating Cervantes’s Don Quixote: how she dealt (or not, as the case may be) with the centuries of scholarship behind the novel, or with the temporal distance separating her from Cervantes’s world, or the number of English translations that have been produced over the centuries (I was surprised to see that there were only 20 or thereabouts). The third and final chapter focuses on her translations of poetry and the particular difficulties involved in this exercise.

The book ends somewhat surprisingly with a “personal list of important translations” which covers authors from ancient Greece to today: from Sophocles and Homer to Dante and Cervantes, from Nietzsche to Dostoevsky, and from Rilke to the ubiquitous W.G. Sebald. It’s a surprising addition to the book, since it reads a bit like a list of canonical works with a lot of gaps in it. It’s surprising also because it somehow seems strange to have so many classic works of literature categorized as “translations” (instead of as “classics”, say). But then that is precisely the point of this book: to make us realize how essential translation is, how central it is in our world, even when we take it for granted and fail to see it for what it’s worth.


Written by Patrick Lennon

December 11, 2011 at 11:55 pm