‘Why Translation Matters’ by Edith Grossman (Review)

Something a little different today, in form if not in the general content matter.  With my blog concentrating squarely on fiction in translation, from time to time I like to take a look at more general thoughts on the topic of translation itself.  Today’s book is one of the more well-known of these recent works, written by a high-profile translator who attempts to argue the importance of the art.  I rather think she’s preaching to the converted round these parts, but let’s give it a look anyway 😉

Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters is a short book which developed from a series of lectures the translator gave at Yale University in 2007.  The title pretty much gives away what the book is about, and Grossman spends a lot of her time arguing for the role of translation in the notoriously monolingual Anglosphere.  However, the book also contains a lot about Grossman herself, and she uses it to discuss her approach towards her most famous translation, the recent English-language version of Don Quixiote, before adding a final section on translating Spanish-language poetry into English.

Grossman has, to say the least, a rather aggressive approach, and she argues for the importance of translation to Anglophone literature, and culture in general.  Translators are the chosen ones responsible for transporting new ideas into a second culture; with authors in other languages acting as ‘long-distance mentors’, it’s the translator who enables this intercontinental meeting of the minds.  Of course, this is not a one-way street, and just as Goethe’s call for Weltliteratur envisages, the translator enables continuous circular influences in literature.  Grossman gives the example of the influence of Faulkner and Joyce on García Márquez, who in turn influenced generations of Anglophone writers.  Similarly, she discusses Pablo Neruda’s influence on American poets, with today’s scene unthinkable without his legacy.

Of course, the most important question here is what a translator is actually doing when they take a work from one language into another, and Grossman gives a fairly good summary of this task:

“To my mind, a translator’s fidelity is not to lexical pairings but to context – the implications and echoes of the first author’s tone intention, and level of discourse.  Good translations are good because they are faithful to this contextual significance.  They are not necessarily faithful to words or syntax, which are peculiar to specific languages and can rarely be brought over directly in any misguided and inevitably muddled effort to somehow replicate the original.”
pp.70/1 (Yale University Press, 2010)

The key, then, is the importance of ideas and intentions over words and grammatical structure.  The focus should always be on translating at a whole-text level – a word-for-word effort, akin to a Google Translate approach, is always going to end up as a failure…

Grossman also comes up with some interesting insights when she runs through the approach she took when asked to create perhaps her most famous work, her recent translation of Don Quixote.  Forced to decide how to consider the task, she drew inspiration from Mexican poet and fiction writer Octavio Paz, whose declaration that there are no original texts (as all writing is merely a translation of the non-visual world) means that the translator is free to create their own work, without feeling burdened by the weight of the ‘original’ text.  Which is a nice theory 😉

As you’d expect in a book on translation, there are the usual complaints about monolingualism, including a reference to an infamous US bumper sticker:

  “If English Was Good Enough For Jesus, It’s Good Enough For Me.” (p.42)

While that was probably(?) tongue-in-cheek, the attitude is representative of how the English-speaking world looks at other languages and cultures, and most of my readers would have experienced moments such as one from Grossman’s early life:

“I never have forgotten my adolescent self discovering nineteenth-century Russian and French novelists: the world seemed to grow large, expanding like an unbreakable balloon; it became broader and deeper as I contemplated characters more diverse and unpredictable than anything I could have imagined on my own.” (p.25)

The need to expand our minds, broaden our horizons and escape from insular attitudes is something which I hope we can all appreciate 🙂

In truth, though, I can’t say that Why Translation Matters is a book I’d really recommend to anyone other than complete novices in the area of translation.  There’s very little here that you wouldn’t find in a lengthy Twitter discussion (apart from, perhaps, information about Grossman’s own work), and the book has a slightly bitter, angry tone, which seems to act as a replacement for any real insights.  Perhaps the reason for this lies in the origin of the text (speeches for undergraduate students), but I was hoping for something a little more substantial.

Her anger at UK publishers for daring to change her words also rubbed me up the wrong way (I remember Philip Gabriel, one of Haruki Murakami’s translators, having a similar rant on a Two Voices podcast).  It’s ironic that Grossman doesn’t understand that her insistence on American English is part of the linguistic imperialism she’s railing against in Why Translation Matters.  She claims that this wouldn’t happen to books first published in the UK when they make their way across to the US:

“I do not believe publishing houses here reciprocate or return the linguistic insult by going out of their way to Americanize the texts of books first published in the United Kingdom…” (pp.45/6)

Hmm.  This is a claim I find dubious in the extreme – can any American publishers (or British translators) help me out here?

Her stories of reading Woolf and Joyce in the original (her justification for her views) miss the point somewhat.  If I choose to read American authors, I expect that the book will be written in American English, but that’s not really the case for translations – I’d appreciate it if a British version at least made an effort to put the text in British English.  Of course, it seems that the new trend is for a more neutral brand of English, with blatant local usage smoothed out (Daniel Hahn recently discussed this, especially the ‘got v gotten’ dilemma, in his excellent Translation Diary).

In truth, this is just one example of an America-centred attitude which takes much away from Grossman’s arguments.  Other than her complaints about British publishers, there’s little here that ventures outside American borders, with no mention at all of places like Ireland, Australia or India.  It’s telling that in discussing her work on Don Quixote, she talks about how her work has to focus on the cultural differences between 17th-century Spain and 21st-century America – and she wonders why UK editors might want to alter her work 😉

Let’s face it, I’m probably not the right reader for this; if you’re newer to the idea of literary translation (and American!) you’ll probably enjoy it a lot more.  Lest you think that I’m alone in my reservations about Why Translation Matters, please check out Tom’s piece from a few years back in which he skewers it in a much less waffly manner 🙂

It’s a shame, really, because it goes without saying that translation does matter, and good books on the subject are important for the spread of this message (one I would recommend is the excellent In Translation, edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky).  As a reminder of the importance of the art, I’ll just leave you on a sombre, and telling, note.  I read this book on the 17th of April – the day Gabriel García Márquez died.  While I didn’t think much of Why Translation Matters, my thanks go to Grossman, and García Márquez’s other translators, for bringing his work into our paths…

12 thoughts on “‘Why Translation Matters’ by Edith Grossman (Review)

  1. I was wondering about this book, such a great review, I don't need to read it now 🙂 It's a pity in this case it wasn't better edited to change the tone to a more appropriate reading version, subsequent drafts usually take care of that.

    I just read her translation of Nada by Carmen Laforet which was excellent.


  2. Of course British books are 'translated' for American audiences. I remember Neil Gaiman (British born, living in America) mentioning every pavement had to be a sidewalk. Or is it the other way around? I was always taught to avoid anything too specific to a single variety of English when I learnt translation at uni (they're Japanese, not Australian or American) although 90% of the time when you're asked to do a translation it's into American English – I think that's mainly for consistency of spelling though.


  3. Interesting review Tony! As a monolinguist I constantly champion the great translators who do so much to help us read world literature. However, I find Grossman's Amerocentric (is there any such word?) approach offputting – and I think there's a risk she's becoming part of this celebrity-translator culture. I've compared her Cervantes with my Penguin John Richardson version and not only does the Penguin read better to me, I've read criticism of hers. At the end of the day, it will always come down to a matter of personal preference as to which translation the reader likes.


  4. Unknown – Yep, I was pretty sure that was the case…

    It annoys me a bit as many of the translations I read are American (my current read talks about football in an American dialect, and that is just, well, wrong!).


  5. Kaggsy – Definitely one who's not backward about coming forward 😉

    In terms of her work, I can only remember two I've read – 'Love in the Time of Cholera' (read too long ago to judge the translation) and Mario Vargas Llosa's 'The Feast of the Goat (which I didn't like at all, finding the writing very ordinary).

    Is Richardson British? I often prefer British translations, because, you know, I'm English 🙂


  6. Wait, no, you brought up the Allen & Bernofsky book! Translators should theorize about translating sometimes. They should just do it more thoughtfully than Grossman does here.

    Something about the lecture format ruins the argument. It becomes a self-congratulation session for people who already agree with each other. Aren't we virtuous for being so culturally sensitive or such cosmopolitans or something like that. It is as much a rhetorical problem as one of substance. We all agree with most of what Grossman says, but her arguments are so puzzlingly poor.

    Grossman's work-for-hire Don Quixote has led to her wonderful work on Siglo de Oro, which is an unqualified good. You don't translate Luis de Góngora in hopes of celebrity.

    Ah, now I am dreaming of the possibility of a celebrity translator culture. Margaret Jull Costa making a guest appearance on Sesame Street, that sort of thing. I'm all for it.


  7. It's a very interesting point you raise about British-English and American-English. For instance, in K, Mchael Frayn's translations of the Chekhov plays are widely performed, and are often viewed as “standard translations”; but in US nd Canada, they are regarded as too british. I suppose I can understand that: to see characters, apparently Russian, speaking in British idioms would be as jarring to American audiences as it would be for British audiences to heart them speak in American idioms. ut this is drama: does this apply to prose fiction also? I think it does, though perhaps not to so great an extent. For instance, the translation I read of “The Master & Margarita” was an American one, by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor, and in the very first paragraph, a character was described as wearing a “cowboy shirt”. I understood what oit meant, but I had to pause a while, as I wouldn't have done had it said “check shirt”.



  8. Tom – I can't see it happening myself (Anthea Bell on Saturday Night Live?)…

    I agree with your issues with the format – it certainly didn't help. My issues, of course, focused largely on the America-centric nature of a lot of her comments. I have to say that Grossman didn't exactly endear herself to me (and I won't be rushing out to find her translations after reading this…)


  9. Mr. Git – Funnily enough, I've just finished reading 'Papers in the Wind', an Argentine novel based mainly on football, translated into American English. I'm glad that most of the book focused on off-field events because some of the Americanised terminology around the game was painful…


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