Author Podcast: Edith Grossman (Translator Marquez, Llosa...)
May is International Translation Month and we caught up with Edith Grossman to talk about her latest work of translation, Don Quixote by Miquel Cervantes, (Harper Collins 2004) NEW! Listen to the podcast interview.
May 14, 2004 —
Edith Grossman is the distinguished, prize-winning translator of major works by leading contemporary writers, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Alvaro Mutis. The author of The Antipoetry of Nicanor Parra, she earned a Ph.D. from New York University. This new translation of Don Quixote is her excursion into the classic literature of an earlier time, a natural kind of progression in reverse to which she brings her many years of experience in rendering into English the works of Cervantes’ heirs in the Spanish-speaking world.
Our podcasts are in .mp3 format and are Apple ITunes compatible. There are two ways listeners can access them: first, via our RSS XML podcast feed or second, via a direct link to the actual .mp3 file. We recommend the former as the RSS XML feed provides access to all the bookbuffet.com podcasts as well as additional information about the episodes. Firefox 2.X, Apple's Safari and Internet Explorer 7, as well as Apple iTunes all support RSS XML aggregation. The URL for our RSS XML feed is:
Part I The Art of Translation
BookBuffet: Edie, you define translating as “the utopian task of attempting to enter the mind of the first writer through the gateway of the text.” Pg. Xviii, DQ. What got you interested in translating Spanish literature? What is the process of this utopian task?
Edith Grossman: These are actually two different questions. I became interested in translating from Spanish, not just Spanish literature but Latin American literature as well, when a friend who was editor of a magazine asked me to translate something—back in the day, it must have been about 1969 or 1970, and I said “I’m not a translator, I’m a critic,” and he said, “Oh do it anyway, you’ll be fine.” I discovered to my surprise that I really loved the work. Over the years I did more and more and more translating until I finally left teaching and became a full time translator, about fourteen years ago or so.
As for the second part of the question—what is the process—do you mean how do I work?
BB. Yes the process of how you pick up a piece and approach it.
EG: The hardest—well, I guess it’s all hard. I won’t say the hardest—the first thing is to hear the text you’re going to translate. Hear it in the sense of deciding on the tone of the language and the level of the diction. And what you hear in the original determines what phrasing you choose. An example of this would be if you were to translate a word for one’s female parent. Do you use ma, mom, mama, mommy, mother, mater, old lady? What word do you use to translate this concept? What determines your choice is the level of diction in the original, and the intention of the original. There is a huge difference between mother and mom—even though they mean exactly the same thing. That is what I normally mean by “ear”. In other words, you have to hear the text. And then you have to find the voice in English that matches the sound of the original.
BB: How do you decide which works or authors you want to tackle? I notice your previous books have been published by multiple houses: Ecco Press, Penguin, Random House, Knopf, Farrar Straus and Giroux—do the authors, their affiliated literary agents or the publishing houses themselves contact you or vice-versa? How does the process work?
EG: I normally don’t decide. The publishers, sometimes authors, but mostly publishers come to me with projects and then I have to decide, which usually isn’t difficult. I try very hard not to recommend texts to publishers because I seem to have the kiss of death. No project I've recommended to them has ever been published, so I try very hard to stay away from recommending things. But normally [I choose projects] in response to a request from a publisher.
BB. Don Quixote was voted in 2002 by 100 important authors from 54 countries as the most important work of fiction, and you describe translating it as “an ongoing rush of exhilaration and terror in tackling such a huge and important project”. What is or has been the biggest challenge and the greatest joy?
EG: Well, from one point of view, the biggest challenge and the greatest joy are exactly the same thing. Which is the absolute—now I go into absolutes when I talk about Cervantes because he’s such a great writer—the absolute perfection of his language—he is such a remarkable writer that finding a voice in English was certainly a joy and an enormous challenge. His language is perfectly lucid and beautiful. A greater challenge, for me at least, was dealing with the weight of scholarship that hangs over that book. The four hundred years of erudition and investigation and research into Don Quixote—facing that was probably the most terrifying part of the translation.
BB: In the case of Cervantes’ DQ, how much reading and research did you do to prepare for this? For example did you: A) read works by the authors who inspired Cervantes—the Epic Poems of Jeronimo Sempere, Louis Zapatras, Pedrode la Vecilla Castellanos, etc which you refer to in the footnotes? B) Other biographies of MC. C) Do you have a special interest in Spanish Baroque period art/literature?
EG: I counted on the years that I spent in school—in graduate school and undergraduate school, studying the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Spain, studying Cervantes, studying Don Quixote. In preparing for this particular translation I did not study anything in particular, because if I had become involved in that, I never would have been able to get to the translation. I counted on the footnotes that were in the Spanish edition, those were very helpful; I use some of them in my translation—you know I keep referring to the editor of the Spanish edition. And I depended on what I knew about that period of time, and on the text itself, which is quite complete. One doesn’t need to know much else, if one can read the text.
BB. And your speaking ability of Spanish—is it your mother tongue?
EG: No it isn’t. I learned Spanish in high school, and decided to specialize in it because my Spanish language teacher was a wonderful woman, and so I wanted to do what she did.
BB: In the book’s forward, Harold Bloom commends you on your “extraordinary quality of prose, ability to contextualize and provide a sense of spiritual atmosphere, with vitality of characterization”. You have an ability to recreate in English what has been accomplished in Spanish (the highest compliment), you take Cervantes' delight in accumulating descriptive synonyms within the same phrase, his artful style that you admit “gives off sparks & flows like honey”. The combination of sophistication, compassion and comedy—it is a tall order.
I read that initially you did not consult previous translations of DQ for fear of losing your own approach/voice, but that as time went by you did find yourself browsing them? What differences do you find between the previous DQ translations and how does yours differ; how have you improved upon them? Like the first printing of the Bible, did you pay more attention to the details of Martín De Riquer’s 1st edition printing of DQ—making this the closest representation to Cervantes original work?
EG:I can’t answer the question for this reason. I didn’t browse any previous translations. I used a couple of them as dictionaries. In other words, when there were problematic words, and I kept finding different meanings in the dictionaries, I would check two other translations, and it turned out that 99% of the time they disagreed with each other as well. [laughs] So I left the final choice to my intuition. I actually have read no other translation of Don Quixote except Samuel Putnam’s which I read when I was a teenager—sixteen or seventeen years old. After that, all of my readings of DQ were in Spanish. And so I can’t speak to what differences there are between those and the one I did.
BB: You began the work in February 2001 and completed it in just two short years. Isn’t that an amazing pace? How do you do that?
EG: Well you suggested two reasons earlier, first that I am a Luddite and don’t have email, cell phones or faxes in my house—and that’s all true. And the other possibility that you suggested is that I chain myself to my computer and that also is true. Six hours usually is a short day for me, I usually work between six to eight hours.
BB: And is that every day—or do you take weekends off?
EG: With a project the size of DQ, I had to work seven days a week, I mean, there were some weeks when I worked six days, but I tended to put in time every day.
BB: So your social life must have evolved around that, after those hours.
EG: That’s right, for example a normal activity of mine that fell by the wayside was going to museums. I just fell out of that habit, and I’m trying very hard to re-establish it now.
BB: What did you learn about Cervantes upon completing this tome that you didn’t know or appreciate at the beginning?
EG: I think what I learned was that he is an even better writer than I thought when I began. My admiration for him grew by leaps and bounds. And by the time I reached the end of the book, I realized that I had not been bored in those two years. I loved what he did at the end of the book, perhaps even more than at the beginning.
BB: Of the living Spanish [speaking] authors that you have translated, can you tell us if you take the opportunity to meet with them, consult with them on their books? E.g. Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Alvaro Mutis? Are you interested in female Spanish writers?
EG: I have met with the three you mentioned; GG, MVL, AL. I have met all of those, and I usually do have an opportunity to talk with most of the writers I translate—Cervantes being the great exception—but when I meet with them I don’t talk about the work. We just sort of hang out and talk. When I’m finished with the rough draft of the translation and I’ve consulted with all my Latino friends and they’ve helped me with words or phrases I find problematic, there is always a list at the end of things I’m still not certain about. And at that point I send the authors a fax with a list of questions. And they’re very generous and very prompt with their responses. I don’t ask them to translate the phrase, I just ask them to tell me what it means, and then I can find the word or words in English.
As far as women writers are concerned, I have translated women, and one of my favorite contemporary authors is a woman, her name is Mayra Montero. She’s Cuban born and currently lives in Puerto Rico. I think she is the leading voice of a younger generation of Latin American writers.
BB: What difference is there in the writing style and subject choices between North American and Spanish [speaking] writers? For example the use of literary devices such as magic realism, or subjects ranging from the political to folkloric, which I relate to Latin American writers.
EG: I’ve translated only one Spanish writer other than Cervantes and that is Julián Ríos. All the other Spanish speaking writers I’ve translated are Latin American. I don’t think there is a huge difference among them. I think certain cultural references are going to be different—in other words, if you’re going to talk about mountains and you’re a North American it will be the Appalachians or the Rockies and if you’re a Latin American it will probably be one of the Sierras or the Andes. You may talk about café con leche or hot dogs. Those kinds of references will be different, but I don’t...
BB: So you don’t think that magical realism…
EG: I don’t even believe it exists. It’s a concept I find rather empty.
BB: I would imagine that the academic world and study of comparative Spanish literature and culture is quite close. Are you involved in the academic world?
EG: Not really. No, I taught for many years, and I stopped teaching, as I said, fourteen years ago, and I’ve been out of the academic loop for a long time. Some of my friends are academics, but I’m not really in that world any more.
BB: So they’re not contacting you…
EG: Oh, well. I have spoken at universities and colleges. I thought you meant writing scholarly articles. I don’t go to scholarly conferences as such, but I do go to conferences on translation for example.
BB: What advice do you have for people contemplating a career in translation?
EG: There are two pieces of advice. One is to find out as much about English as you can, through endless reading of the very best literature you can get your hands on, and by writing yourself, so that you get a notion of how the language works and how the words go together. I have read very little theory of translation. I never can figure out what the theoreticians are talking about. The other piece of advice is to become a very good self-editor, because the revisions that you do in translating are basically an editing process. I do six or seven edits on every text, and the more skilled you are at that, the better the translation will be.
BB: You must have done a lot of traveling in Latin American countries. You sound like you know the countryside as well as the culture.
EG: I actually travel as little as possible. I don’t have extensive travel in Latin America. In a sense you don’t really need it, because good writers create the place they’re writing about for you.
BB: Philip Roth was a champion of works coming out of Eastern European countries as general editor for Penguin up until 1989 with his program “Writers from the Other Europe”. Can you speak to the value of reading, recognizing and sharing world literature as a necessary step in bringing us toward the most ambitious goal—mutual understanding and world peace?
EG: I can speak a little bit about it. I think there is an element you left out which is for the pleasure. Reading is not only for the good of the world but for the good of the reader, and that is broadening one’s sense of what the human race is about and the world that we live in, and sharing in ideas and emotions that appear in literature. I guess it’s called vicarious experience, and all of us depend on it because none of us can do everything that’s possible in this world. I think the more kinds of experience we have in our lives, the fuller our lives are, and the more understanding we can bring to our lives and to the lives of other people. And so the more that we read, especially works from cultures that we’re not familiar with, I think the more interesting we’ll find life.
BB: Americans are sometimes thought of as rather ethnocentric when they travel abroad. Do you think there is enough investigation by the average American to find out about other cultures?
EG: No I don’t think there is, and as a matter of fact in recent years I think we’ve even stopped investigating our own culture. I think people are starving for the nourishment that comes from great art and it’s not being provided. So we’re not doing a very good job of helping young people find out about this country and our traditions and culture. And certainly we’re not doing a wonderful job about finding out about, learning about other cultures, and other art forms, and other literatures.
The United States publishes fewer translations than any other industrialized country in the world. The numbers are amazing. If you compare the numbers of translations published say in Germany, or France, or Spain, or Italy, or the Netherlands—it’s just appalling.
BB: Another example is looking at the BBC World News vs. looking at any [U.S.] national newscast. The perspective that you get from other news is far more encompassing of worldviews and different perspectives.
ED: Some of it is understandable. Because the country is so huge, you can travel for 3000 miles and speak the same language. You can go from the Atlantic to the Pacific and not have to change languages or wait to cross a border. There aren’t a whole lot of places in the world where you can do that. So our sense that God speaks in English and English is the real language and everything else is just make-believe, it comes I think from the experience that we have had in this country.
BB: Edie, what is in store for us from you next? Do you have anything on the go? Are you promoting this book actively?
EG: Well, all of the above. I have been speaking and doing interviews similar to this one. I think it is immensely important to try to bring important books to the attention of people. And I find it gratifying that anybody wants to hear what I have to say about anything, so I’m very happy to do it.
Links For Further Interest:
List of Books Translated by Edith Grossman
MARIAO VARGA LLOSA
Tarzan, My Body, Christopher Columbus;
My Night with Federico GarcAa Lorca,
Interesting Websites Involving Translation
The New York Review of Books: Literature in Translation. Extensive list of books translated to English. Categorized by author, translator and introducer.
http://www.CATranslation.org/ CAT’s mission is to promote translation through the literary arts, education and community outreach. Located in San Francisco they publish TWO LINES featuring new poetry and fiction from languages as diverse as Turkish, Czech, Ancient Greek, Korean, Yiddish and Finnish.
PEN Society Translation Awards: see the list of award winning works, fiction & poetry. And click here to view a list of PEN World of Translation events.
Foreign Lit. Websites: