the Lance of Language
Translator of Contemporary Lit Takes on a Classic
by Tom Devaney
Grossman, CW’57, G’59, is probably the foremost
translator of current Spanish- language literature. The 67-year-old
New Yorker has rendered into English more than 30 books of
fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, most notably works by the
Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel García Márquez,
in addition to writers of the Latin American literary boom
of the ’60s and ’70s.
So when Ecco Press invited her to translate Miguel de Cervantes’ 400-year-old
classic Don Quixote, she told them, “I work
on contemporary authors. But what greater book could a translator
in Spanish do? I would love to.”
Grossman, who has a deep voice and smoky gray hair, recounts
her unlikely journey while sitting at a round wooden table
in her tidy apartment, where she works full time as a translator.
A Picasso matador, painted in bold black lines, hangs behind
her, and the recent biography Goya, by Robert Hughes,
is on the side table near a comfortable Eames chair. The
loaded bookcases that line the walls of each room attest
to a lifetime of reading and immersion in books.
Still, with over a dozen English translations of the novel,
Why another Don Quixote? Her answer is simple: “Why
not? The book is so large and so terrific that it can stand
as many translations as people care to do. And each translation
will bring another point of view to this novel, which is
infinitely interesting and worth reading.”
But Grossman had a problem.
It wasn’t Cervantes’ prose, which she says “is
very lucid.” The problem “that loomed very large
was the over 400 years of scholarship, research, writing,
and translations of this book,” she explains, her hands
momentarily placed together on the table. She had to prove
to herself that she could capture in English the novel’s
opening line, “which is the most famous sentence in
She likens that sentence to the first line of Moby Dick: “Call
me Ishmael.” “People who’ve never read
the book [Moby Dick] know what that’s about,
and it’s the same with Don Quixote,” she
observes. “ It begins, ‘En un lugar de la Mancha,
de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme…’; and I translated
it, ‘Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name
I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago,
one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf
and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.’ What
I really wanted was to get that drive—the momentum.
And after I was pretty satisfied with my opening sentence,
I said, OK, I can do this now.”
Grossman is not the only one who is pleased. Her massive Don
Quixote has received lavish praise. The esteemed Mexican
novelist Carlos Fuentes, writing in the New York Times,
called the translation “truly masterly: the contemporaneous
and the original co-exist.”
Grossman grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of Philadelphia.
Her father was a salesman and small businessman, and her
mother kept house for the most part. “Neither one of
them had gone to college,” she says, “so my sisters
and I were the first.” She went to Girls High, the
city’s best public school for girls at the time, and
on a scholarship enrolled at Penn, where she majored in Spanish.
Her career as a translator began as an undergraduate with
the poems of Juan Ramón Jimónez. She remarks, “He
writes very beautiful, very lyrical poems….They were
the first translations I ever did, and they were published
in the university literary magazine.”
In 1963, she spent a year in Spain on a Fulbright scholarship.
Then she finished a doctorate in Latin American literature
at NYU and moved on to a career as a university professor.
Her first professional job in translation came by way of
a friend at the end of the ’60s. Literary magazine
editor “Ronald Christ asked me to do a translation
a story by the Argentine writer Macedonio Fernández,” she recalls. “I
enjoyed getting so deep inside a text that I could recreate it, and I enjoyed
working at home. From then on, I began to do more and more translation.”
Then in the late ’80s, Grossman was asked if she would
submit a sample for a new novel by García Márquez.
In classic Grossman fashion she responded, “What, are
you kidding? Of course I would be interested.” The
book turned out to be Love in the Time of Cholera.
It was with this breakthrough translation that her reputation
began to build, and she left teaching in 1990 to work full
time as a translator.
Grossman’s account of translating García Márquez
for the first time is illuminating of her work and future
career. “I thought of a generalized 19th-century realistic-novel
voice by way of Faulkner. Faulkner is…very Spanish
in the way the sentences flow and their dependent clauses.” She
continues, “It’s as if Hemingway had never walked
the earth. I put Hemingway’s impulse to abbreviate
and write very tersely aside and used polysyllabic words,
and I did not use contractions. I just let it be a little
old-fashioned in its flow, and it seemed to work.”
Grossman has strong thoughts about being a translator and
about translation itself. On the state of translation she
is blunt: “The United States publishes fewer translations
than any industrialized country…. The publishers say
there is no readership for them—the readers are turned
off by translations. I suppose they know what they’re
talking about, but I wonder if readers are turned off. A
good number of people will read or listen to what’s
available and if publishers deny them translations, then
there won’t be a demand for them.”
On the creative requirements of translating she says, “Thinking
up characters and plot is not a problem translators have
to face, but the imagination of language and how one says
what one needs to say in the best way possible—the
most effective way possible—that’s a problem
that translators have to deal with constantly.”
The impression you’re left with is a refreshing directness
mixed with deep appreciation and intimate knowledge of the
writing and the authors she has translated.
On Cervantes, she comments, “ I do not think it’s
possible to write artful prose in Spanish without having
Cervantes behind you. There is no model like that in English.”
On García Márquez, she says, “He gives
you exquisitely detailed observations—he sees everything.
Everything an observant observer can observe is observed
in his books: the clothes, facial expressions, and furniture.
Any conclusions you wish to draw about the emotional life
of the characters is up to you.” Recently, Grossman
completed a translation of the first installment of his memoir,
Living to Tell the Tale.
Finally, and with great affection, she confides, “I
find García Márquez one of the really remarkable
writers in the world in any language…. I don’t
know how you can improve, say, on Love in the Time of Cholera,
or Autumn of the Patriarch, or One Hundred Years of Solitude.
These are books that are huge; they are monumental. Everything
he writes is better than the last thing he wrote—and
different. He’s still
very much at it.”
And so is Edith Grossman.
Tom Devaney is a poet and writer,
a creative writing lecturer, and a coordinator at Kelly Writers House.