In English, Please?


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Edith Grossman is one of the finest literary translators working today. She has translated some of the greats of the Spanish language — from Marquez to Llosa, Fuentes to Dorfman. Her translation of Don Quixote was masterful and is widely accepted as the new standard text. She is the perfect complement to these writers, translating not only the language but also the emotion and experience of the original work. Indeed, the essays in the final half of her new book, Why Translation Matters — “Translating Cervantes” and “Translating Poetry” — are interesting and careful; they make a significant contribution to the philosophy and the practice of translation. That’s why the first half of the book is such a shame

  • Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman. 160 pages. Yale University Press. $24.

The first two pieces in this collection of lectures originally given at the Whitney Center for the Humanities focus on how translation exists in the world, and how the world responds to it. In “Why Translation Matters” and “Authors, Translators, and Readers Today,” Grossman attempts to both place the interpretive art of translation into the larger literary ecosystem and give a sense of the vitally important role translation had played in the lives of writers and readers since the 1611 translation of Cervantes inspired a generation of English writers. She makes connections between the translation of Faulkner into Spanish to García Márquez, and then the translation of Márquez to English to Salman Rushdie and many other writers. Translation has not only brought Lispector, Tolstoy, and Ovid into our native tongue, but with every new interpretation, hidden nuances are brought into light, new layers excavated. The literature of a country shut off from literature of the larger world becomes stagnant, but by opening our borders, there can be a flourishing.

If translation, then, is so important, so enriching, why is it so underpaid and under-respected? Grossman’s assessment of translation’s second-class nature in a certain segment of the industry is spot on. There are many publishers who won’t put the translator’s name on the book cover, fearing it’ll scare off readers. Even the hardback translation of 2666 by Roberto Bolaño — by then a superstar author — left off the name of its translator, Natasha Wimmer’s. Many publications won’t review works in translation, and they make up silly reasons for the exclusion. (From The Atlantic: “We tend to focus on prose-style… Both the reviewer and the reader of the book [in translation] encounter not the author’s writing but the translator’s rendering of it. Hence we run fewer pieces on translated work.”)

Then there are the realities Grossman does not bring up. Translation is a slog. It’s mostly women’s work, and it’s not a job from which you can retire comfortably (unless you are lucky and skilled enough to make it into the top echelon where publishers are interested to hear the new discoveries you made about a 400-year-old classic). When you do turn in a year’s worth of work in exchange for what must end up being $.75 an hour — more likely to be a multigenerational soap opera than a work of art — you get the added bonus of the news that if you’re an academic, translating can actually hurt your chances for getting hired or making tenure, or you get some jerk showing up at your reading to harangue you for translating the German “reise” as “holiday” instead of “trip,” because obviously the author intended “trip” and by choosing “holiday” you have changed the meaning of the entire work. Or maybe you have some yahoo declaring that translation is an impossible act and philosophically suspect. After a 35-year career of this, I would probably be a little angry.

And oh yes, Grossman is. Critics — except for James Wood, of course — suffer from “intransigent dilettantism and tenacious amateurism.” American and British editors possess “chauvinism and unforgivable, willful know-nothingness.” She accuses academics of trying to kill off translation, stating that some “actually believe that translations should be banned entirely from the curriculum of any self-respecting university.” She can’t be bothered to tell us who these people are, of course. “I do not care to remember.”

With this book, Grossman had an opportunity to educate and enlighten her audience on how to engage with works in translation, how to think and write about them as well. Instead, she becomes a nag. She is not wrong in her complaints — translation should be more respected, readers should be better educated and interested in foreign literature. But instead of engaging with reality, she’s essentially complaining that the world is not perfect. Yes, yes, ideally book reviewers would, as Grossman prefers, be able to read both the translation and the text in its original language, and then have 3,000 words in The New Yorker — paid $3 a word, of course — to discuss intelligently the choices the translator made, rather than be assigned 150 words to summarize, evaluate, and illuminate the memoir of some 25-year-old trust funder. It would also be wonderful if publishers were able to fling endless amounts of money on unpopular books, rather than have to balance blockbuster celebrity fad diet books with works they actually respect. Translators should be paid living wages, yes, but so should writers, critics, editorial assistants, book review editors, adjunct literature professors, and high school Spanish and French teachers.

Reading her list of complaints about the publishing industry — which is, yes, fucked — I wanted to ask her: How long are you going to stand outside in your best party dress and hat, banging on the door, howling because you weren’t invited to the party? Why would you even want to be invited? Have you seen who’s in there? Some old dudes who think in profit margins and units sold, and at best will call you “toots” and maybe grab your ass and pretend it was an accident when you yell at them for it. Maybe Grossman longs for the days when Nabokov was a bestselling author and a guest on TV talk shows, but she doesn’t even mention the current thriving foreign literature scene at independent publishers, at universities, and online. And sure, it’s less glamorous, and the buffet is more likely to have Trader Joe’s salsa and chips than fancy tiny radish sandwiches with whimsical garnish, but no one there is going to purposely mispronounce your name just to remind you how unimportant you are.

There are small, wonderful presses such as Archipelago, Telegram, and New Directions that are dedicated to bringing foreign literature into English. The university presses are tireless, and several universities have started teaching translation itself in its system. This is all beyond Grossman’s view. Sure, the print runs are small, the publicity budget is limited, the cover art is not designed by Chip Kidd, but there are blogs, online reviews, and a passionate (and small) audience waiting for them. It’s a fragile little ecosystem, but it’s evolving. It’s easy to complain about how lifeless everything is if you willfully ignore where the action is.

What to do about the grumps, the complainers, the snarlers who would rather stamp their feet and dissolve into a cloud of frustration than notice that, despite the world not being perfect, there are some really nice things about it? I know Grossman just wants her hard work to be acknowledged and appreciated, and her industry as a whole to be heralded. That’s not where things stand, though. And Grossman has a little bit of power: Being at the top of her game, able to pick any assignment she wants, I bet, and being compared to Walter Benjamin, she could have changed the way we think about translation. Instead, she chose to complain about bad reviews she’s received while almost completely ignoring her own thesis: why translation matters. It matters for the same reasons art matters. Or literature, or Chopin, or public gardens, or pastry: It opens doors to new worlds and takes us out of our dreary routines and challenges us to challenge ourselves to add more beauty to our lives and rethink what normal is. It’s easy to deal with what-should-be’s, but it’s more important to take a good hard look at what actually is. Only then can we start the hard work of improving our lot. • 3 March 2010