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Aiming the Lance of Language
Translator of Contemporary Lit Takes on a Classic

by Tom Devaney

Edith Grossman

Edith 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 Spanish.”

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 of
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.

Copyright ©2004 University of Pennsylvania
School of Arts and Sciences
Updated September 1, 2004