Monday, May 10, 2010

Never in unison, but in a kind of satisfying harmony - Edith Grossman on How To Translate

The last two chapters of translator Edith Grossman’s slim new book, Why Translation Matters (2010), are excellent.  So let’s start there.  One is on the mechanics of translating Don Quixote; the other is on translating Spanish-language poetry, and is packed with side-by-side examples.  As a brief guide to How Translation Is Done, one could hardly do better.  The arguments are non-technical, the examples are clear, and the reader who is, in the end, dissatisfied with some of Grossman’s decisions has learned something about how translation really works.

Grossman was commissioned to translate Don Quixote and given a two year deadline.  Best known for her translations of Gabriel García Márquez and other contemporary writers, Grossman says she “repeatedly asked the published whether he was certain he had called the right Grossman” (78).  Accepting the job, she had to confront “centuries of Cervantean scholarship,” at least twenty previous English translations, and four centuries of distance from Cervantes and his language.

Grossman thinks of herself as an actor, playing “the Cervantean part.”   Those of us who recently read Jorge Luis Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote” might start at hearing that, but Grossman does have a sort of Menardian conception of translation.  She wanted to “catch a glimpse of Cervantes’ mind”, and is at her best “when I can begin to imagine that the author and I have started to speak together – never in unison, but in a kind of satisfying harmony” (82).  Pierre Menard rejects actually becoming Cervantes as both “too easy” and impossible. Grossman argues that it is plenty hard, and possible, if “metaphorical.”

Grossman has a defense of including the errors of Cervantes that is both sensible (she picked an edition and stuck with it, however imperfect) and ludicrous (incorporating Cervantes’ own corrections would “scholarship[] away that enthusiastic, ebullient quality, what I think of as the creative surge”) (85).

The chapter on translating poetry is in part inspired by Grossman’s first-rate 2006 collection of Golden Age Spanish poetry, which I enjoyed way back here and recommend to everyone.  My great criticism of that book was that it was too short.  Now I can see why.  Her method is not honed for speed.  Grossman essentially memorizes the poems before translating them, since “I believe that of all these poetic elements, the most important is rhythm” (96).  She takes the music and the complexity of the sound entirely seriously.

In the poems Grossman supplies in Why Translation Matters, I can sometimes see what she is doing, and sometimes not.  Here are the first four lines of Jaime Manrique’s “Mambo”:

Contra un cielo topacio
y ventanales estrellados
con delirantes trinitarias
y rojas, sensuales cayenas;
Against a topaz sky
and huge windows starry
with delirious heartsease
and sensual red cayenne; (pp. 102-3)

The poem, I am told “recreates the dance rhythm of the mambo” (101) which, I have to admit, I can’t hear in either the original or in Grossman.  Poems are generally rhythmic, right?  Is this one more rhythmic?  But I suspect my ear is faulty.  And I like (both) poems for their imagery and characters – the poem is told by an adult remembering aunts dancing during his childhood, “and I dance hiding in their skirts.”

Grossman makes translating poetry seem like such fun.  If only her book were titled How Translation Is Done.


  1. You make me worry that the beginning chapters of the book aren't very good. I like the idea of having the Spanish and her translation side by side examples. The one you cite is interesting especially since she changes the location of rojas/red in the last line. I can sort of get the quick-quick-slow mambo rhythm but it feels sort of murky moreso in the translation than the original I think.

  2. I read a lot of translated fiction, so this sounds like a book I should definitely pick up. I've been curious about translated poetry for a long time and how that works out. I came across an English translation of Dante's Inferno that had a perfect rhyming sequence and was like, how the heck did they do that without totally messing it up?

  3. There are a few translators whose work I've come to appreciate, but poetry seems totally different - presenting another set of challenges entirely. I have a hard time with it in English, so can't imagine translating. The book sounds interesting though.

  4. I've been reading so much translated work recently, and have really started wondering how translators come to the decisions they do and how it all really works. I'm reading some French translated poetry right now, and that amps up all my questions, especially when it comes to getting the same rhymes in English as there are (or at least similar) in he French... I definitely want to read the chapter you mention that talks about translating poetry. So fascinating.

  5. I just saw this mentioned on Stefanie's blog and it sounded interesting (from the title). Sounds like maybe it wasn't so rewarding.

    Are you going to talk about it more? Or is this all you have to say about that.

  6. Man, if y'all thought this sounded negative, wait'll you see what I just put up. The "How Translation Is Done" chapters are the good parts of Grossman's book!

    Rebecca, there's more than one kind of "rewarding"!

    It's a great subject, and Grossman has many valuable things to say, but she also uses this book as an opportunity to vent some frustration.

    JoAnn - you're right. Poetry is different. The challenges to the translator are quite different. One more reason I don't understand - well, that's today's post.

    Sarah - these Grossman chapters are a great way to dig into the questions you're asking, and Grossman supplies a short, useful bibliography for further exploration.

    Stefanie - I can see why "red" is moved. In that line, all three accented syllables now have the "short e" sound (sen/red/enne).