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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

Five variations on Don Quixote’s opening line

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No two translations are ever the same. Even if you were to ask one and the same translator to work on the same text twice, he or she would most likely make different choices the second time, resulting in a more or less different text.

In much the same vein, different translators working on the same text will produce different translations, no matter how straightforward that text might seem to be. This will be all the more so when the different translators are from different eras.

As an example, here are five translations of the opening line of the “Author’s preface” to Cervantes’s unsurpassable Don Quixote, published in two parts in 1605 and 1615. These translations are from the early seventeenth, the mid eighteenth, the late nineteenth, the late twentieth, and the early twenty-first centuries. I’ve highlighted the various parts of the sentence to make the comparison stand out more, and to show how virtually every part of the sentence is subject to change.

Thomas Shelton’s translation of the first part of Don Quixote was, according to Wikipedia, the first to be published in any language. It appeared in 1612, and it is available on Bartleby:

Thou mayst believe me, gentle reader, without swearing, that I could willingly desire this book (as a child of my understanding) to be the most beautiful, gallant, and discreet that might possibly be imagined”.

Although Charles Jarvis’s translation was first published in 1742, it is still available in the Oxford World’s Classics series (pictured below left):

You may believe me without an oath, gentle reader, that I wish this book, as the child of my brain, were the most beautiful, the most sprightly, and the most ingenious, that can be imagined”.

The translation by John Ormsby (1829-1895) was published in 1885, and is currently available on Project Gutenberg:

Idle reader: thou mayest believe me without any oath that I would this book, as it is the child of my brain, were the fairest, gayest, and cleverest that could be imagined”.

John Rutherford’s version was published by Penguin in 2000, and revised in 2001 and 2003 (pictured below centre):

Idle reader: I don’t have to swear any oaths to persuade you that I should like this book, since it is the son of my brain, to be the most beautiful, elegant and intelligent book imaginable”.

Secker and Warburg released Edith Grossman’s translation in 2003 (pictured below right):

Idle reader: Without my swearing to it, you can believe that I would like this book, the child of my understanding, to be the most beautiful, the most brilliant, and the most discreet that anyone could imagine”.

If anything, these variations on the original make me wonder, not so much about what Cervantes meant, but how he would have formulated it had he written in English. But just as that is an impossibility, neither can there be such a thing as an “ideal” English translation (or in any other language, for that matter). And so I’d like to finish off with the original opening line from the Primera parte del ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (from the online edition available at the Centro Virtual Cervantes):

Desocupado lector: sin juramento me podrás creerque quisiera que este libro, como hijo del entendimiento, fuera el más hermoso, el más gallardo y más discreto que pudiera imaginarse“.