Why Translation Matters (excerpt) – Edith Grossman

An excerpt from Why Translation Matters
by Edith Grossman

Why translation matters: the subject is so huge, so complex, and so dear to my heart that I have decided to begin my approach to it by answering the implicit question with another question, using the technique of query-as-response—a traditional, perhaps time-honored method of indicating the almost impenetrable difficulty of a subject, and certainly, as every pedagogue knows, a good way to delay and even confound the questioner until you can think of an acceptable answer that has at least a glimmer of coherence. My variation on that traditional ploy consists of breaking the question into still smaller components in order to refocus the inquiry and ask not only why translation matters, but also whether it matters at all, and if in fact it does have importance, who exactly cares about it. The answers that emerge may really depend on how the questions are formulated: Why, for example, does translation matter to translators, authors, and readers? Why does it not matter to most publishers and book reviewers? What is its relevance to the literary tradition in any number of languages? What is its contribution to the civilized life of the world? My attempt to devise a response to these various elements constitutes a kind of preliminary appraisal of some of the thorny, ongoing, apparently never-to-be-resolved problems that surround the question of literary translation, beginning with the old chestnut of whether it is possible at all, and moving on to what it actually does, and what its proper place in the universe of literature should be.

I believe that serious professional translators, often in private, think of themselves—forgive me, I mean ourselves—as writers,  no matter what else may cross our minds when we ponder the work we do, and I also believe we are correct to do so. Is this sheer presumption, a heady kind of immodesty on our part? What exactly do we literary translators do to justify the notion that the term “writer” actually applies to us? Aren’t we simply the humble, anonymous handmaids-and-men of literature, the grateful, ever-obsequious servants of the publishing industry? In the most resounding yet decorous terms I can muster, the answer is no, for the most fundamental description of what translators do is that we write—or perhaps rewrite—in language B a work of literature originally composed in language A, hoping that readers of the second language—I mean, of course, readers of the translation—will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers. This is the translator’s grand ambition. Good translations approach that purpose. Bad translations never leave the starting line.

As a first step toward accomplishing so exemplary an end, translators need to develop a keen sense of style in both languages, honing and expanding our critical awareness of the emotional impact of words, the social aura that surrounds them, the setting and mood that informs them, the atmosphere they create. We struggle to sharpen and elaborate our perception of the connotations and implications behind basic denotative meaning in a process not dissimilar to the efforts writers  make to increase their familiarity with and competence in a given literary idiom.

Writing, like any other artistic practice, is a vocation that calls to deep, resonating parts of our psyches; it is not something translators or writers can be dissuaded from doing or would abandon easily. It seems strikingly paradoxical, but although translators obviously are writing someone else’s work, there is no shame or subterfuge in this despite the peculiar disparagement and continual undervaluing of what we do by some publishers and many reviewers.

As William Carlos Williams said in a letter written in 1940 to the art critic and poet Nicolas Calas (and my thanks to Jonathan Cohen, the scholar of inter-American literature, for sharing the quotation with me):

If I do original work all well and good. But if I can say it (the matter of form I mean) by translating the work of others that also is valuable. What difference does it make?

The undeniable reality is that the work becomes the translator’s (while simultaneously and mysteriously somehow remaining the work of the original author) as we transmute it into a second language. Perhaps transmute is the wrong verb; what we do is not an act of magic, like altering base metals into precious ones, but the result of a series of creative decisions and imaginative acts of criticism. In the process of translating, we endeavor  to hear the first version of the work as profoundly and completely as possible, struggling to discover the linguistic charge, the structural rhythms, the subtle implications, the complexities of meaning and suggestion in vocabulary and phrasing, and the ambient, cultural inferences and conclusions these tonalities allow us to extrapolate. This is a kind of reading as deep as any encounter with a literary text can be.

For example, consider fiction. Dialogue contains often nuanced though sometimes egregious indications of the class, status, and education of the characters, not to mention their intelligence and emotional state; significant intentions and sonorities abound in the narration and in the descriptive portions of the work; there may be elements of irony or satire; the rhythm of the prose (long, flowing periods or short, crisp phrases) and the tone of the writing (colloquialisms, elevated diction, pomposities, slang, elegance, substandard usage) are pivotal stylistic devices, and it is incumbent upon the translator to apprehend the ways in which these instrumentalities further the purposes of the fiction, the revelation of character, the progress of the action.

To varying degrees, all attentive readers do this, consciously or unconsciously. Certainly students and teachers of literature attempt to achieve this kind of profound analysis in every paper they write, every lecture they give. How, then, does the endeavor of the translator differ from that of any careful reader,  not to mention harried students and their equally hard-pressed instructors? The unique factor in the experience of translators is that we not only are listeners to the text, hearing the author’s voice in the mind’s ear, but speakers of a second text—the translated work—who repeat what we have heard, though in another language, a language with its own literary tradition, its own cultural accretions, its own lexicon and syntax, its own historical experience, all of which must be treated with as much respect, esteem, and appreciation as we bring to the language of the original writer. Our purpose is to re-create as far as possible, within the alien system of a second language, all the characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities of the work we are translating. And we do this by analogy—that is, by finding comparable, not identical, characteristics, vagaries, quirks, and stylistic peculiarities in the second language. Repeating the work in any other way—for example, by succumbing to the literalist fallacy and attempting to duplicate the text in another language, following a pattern of word-for-word transcription— would lead not to a translation but to a grotesque variation on Borges’s Pierre Menard, who rewrites his own Don Quixote that coincides word for word with Cervantes’ original, though it is considered superior to the original because of its modernity. Furthermore, a mindless, literalist translation would constitute a serious breach of contract. There isn’t a self-respecting publisher in the world who would not reject a manuscript framed  in this way. It is not acceptable, readable, or faithful, as the letters of agreement demand, though it certainly may have its own perverse originality.

To cite Walter Benjamin in his essay “The Task of the Translator,”

No translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. . . . For just as the tenor and significance of the great works of literature undergo a complete transformation over the centuries, the mother tongue of the translator is transformed as well. While a poet’s words endure in his own language, even the greatest translation is destined to become part of the growth of its own language and eventually to be absorbed by its renewal. Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead languages that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.

And as Ralph Manheim, the great translator from German, so famously said, translators are like actors who speak the lines as the author would if the author could speak English. As one would expect from so gifted a practitioner of the art, Manheim’s observation on translation is wonderfully insightful and revelatory. Whatever else it may be, translation in Manheim’s formulation is a kind of interpretive performance, bearing the same relationship to the original text as the actor’s work does to the script, the performing musician’s to the composition. This image of performance may account for the fact that, surprisingly enough, I always seem to conceive of and discuss the translating process as essentially auditory, something immediately available to other people, as opposed to a silent, solitary process. I think of the author’s voice and the sound of the text, then of my obligation to hear both as clearly and profoundly as possible, and finally of my equally pressing need to speak the piece in a second language. Especially in the translation of poetry, this practice is not purely metaphorical. It is, instead, an integral part of my actual approach to the interpretation of a poem in Spanish and its rendering into English. In my case, the work tends to be done viva voce.

We read translations all the time, but of all the interpretive arts, it is fascinating and puzzling to realize that only translation has to fend off the insidious, damaging question of whether or not it is, can be, or should be possible. It would never occur to anyone to ask whether it is feasible for an actor to perform a dramatic role or a musician to interpret a piece of music. Of course it is feasible, just as it is possible for a translator to rewrite a work of literature in another language. Can it be done well? I think so, as do my translating colleagues, but there are other, more antipathetic opinions. Yet even the most virulent, mean-spirited critic reluctantly admits on occasion that some few decent translations do appear from time to time. And the very concept of world literature as a discipline fit for academic study depends on the availability of translations. Translation occupies a central and prominent position in the conceptualization of a universal, enlightened civilization, and, no small accomplishment, it almost defines the European Renaissance. The “rebirth” we all have studied at one time or another began as the translation into Latin and then the vernacular languages of the ancient Greek philosophy and science that had been lost to Christian Europe for centuries. Poets of the late fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries—for example, the Spaniards Garcilaso de la Vega and Fray Luis de León—routinely translated and adapted classical and then Italian works, and these versions of Horace or Virgil or Petrarch were included as a matter of course in collections of their original poems.

Translation is crucial to our sense of ourselves as serious readers, and as literate, educated men and women we would find the absence of translations to read and study inconceivable. There are roughly six thousand extant languages in the world. Let us hypothesize that approximately one thousand of them are written. Not even the most gifted linguist could read complex literary texts in one thousand languages. We tend to be in awe of the few people who can read even ten languages well, and it clearly is an astonishing feat, although we have to remember that if there were no translations, even those multilingual prodigies would be deprived of any encounter with works written in the 990 tongues they don’t know. If this is true for the linguistically gifted, imagine the impact that the disappearance of translations would have on the rest of us. Translation expands our ability to explore through literature the thoughts and feelings of people from another society or another time. It permits us to savor the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time to live outside our own skins, our own preconceptions and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless, indescribable ways.

The translation of their works is also of critical importance to writers around the world, promising them a significant increase in readership. One of the many reasons writers write—though certainly not the only one—is to communicate with and affect as many people as possible. Translation expands that number exponentially, allowing more and more readers to be touched by an author’s work. For writers whose first language is limited in terms of how many people speak it, translation is indispensable for achieving an audience of consequential size. For those whose first language is spoken by millions, though a decisive number of them may be illiterate or so impoverished that buying books is not an option, translation is also an imperative. It is one of the preposterous ironies of our current literary situation that despite the pitifully low number of translations published each year in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the rest of the English-speaking world compared, say, with the industrialized nations of western Europe or Latin America, the English-language market is the one most writers and their agents crave for their books. English is the world’s lingua franca in commerce, technology, and diplomacy, and it tends to be spoken in places where literacy is prevalent and people are prosperous enough to purchase books, even though the number of book buyers seems to decrease steadily. Some years ago Philip Roth estimated that there are four thousand people in the United States who buy books, and he went on to say that once you have sold your work to them and the libraries, your run is essentially ended. On optimistic days, I assume Roth was being characteristically sardonic. At other times, I am not so sure.

One of the double-edged canards about the Nobel Prize is that no writer who has not been translated into English can hope even to be considered for the prize in literature, because English is the one language all the judges can read. This notion actually seems to be true for the use of the book in other media, such as film. A book that has not been translated into English has little likelihood of ever being made into a widely distributed movie.

Translation affects creative artists in another, perhaps less  obvious but much more important and extraordinarily consequential way—one that goes far beyond questions of financial reward, no matter how significant that may be. As Walter Benjamin indicates in the passage cited earlier, literary translation infuses a language with influences, alterations, and combinations that would not have been possible without the presence of translated foreign literary styles and perceptions, the material significance and heft of literature that lies outside the territory of the purely monolingual. In other words, the influence of translated literature has a revivifying and expansive effect on what is hideously called the “target language,” the language into which the text is translated.

In 1964 Robert Bly wrote an essay entitled “The Surprise of Neruda,” in which he speaks directly to this issue:

We tend to associate the modern imagination with the jerky imagination, which starts forward, stops, turns around, switches from subject to subject. In Neruda’s poems, the imagination drives forward, joining the entire poem in a rising flow of imaginative energy. . . . He is a new kind of creature moving about under the surface of everything.

Moving under the earth, he knows everything from the bottom up (which is the right way to learn the nature of a thing) and therefore is never at a loss for its name. Compared to him, the American poet resembles a blind man moving about above the ground from tree to tree, from house to house, feeling each thing for a long time, and then calling out “house,” when we already know it’s a house.

The impact of the kind of artistic discovery that translation enables is profoundly important to the health and vitality of any language and any literature. It may be one of the reasons that histories of national literatures so often seem to exclude supremely significant connections among writers. “National literature” is a narrowing, confining concept based on the distinction between native and foreign, which is certainly a valid and useful differentiation in some areas and under certain circumstances, but in writing it is obviated by translation, which dedicates itself to denying and negating the impact of divine punishment for the construction of the Tower of Babel, or at least to overcoming its worst divisive effects. Translation asserts the possibility of a coherent, unified experience of literature in the world’s multiplicity of languages. At the same time, translation celebrates the differences among languages and the many varieties of human experience and perception they can express. I do not believe this is a contradiction. Rather, it testifies to the comprehensive, inclusive embrace of both literature and translation.

One example among many of the fruitful exchange among languages brought about by translation is the ongoing connection between William Faulkner and Gabriel García Márquez. When he was a young man, García Márquez had an insatiable appetite for Faulkner’s fiction and devoured his novels in Spanish translations, along with the books of many other authors writing in other languages. Over the years he has spoken often of Faulkner as his favorite English-language author—the subject of a long conversation between the Colombian and former president Bill Clinton (who had claimed that One Hundred Years of Solitude was the greatest novel of the past fifty years and called it his favorite work of fiction) at a dinner in William Styron’s house on Martha’s Vineyard in the summer of 1995. Carlos Fuentes was also present, and when he said that his favorite book was Absalom, Absalom, Clinton stood and recited from memory part of Benjy’s monologue from The Sound and the Fury.

In Living to Tell the Tale, García Márquez’s reading of Light in August runs like a leitmotif through his narrative of the trip he makes with his mother to sell the family house in Aracataca: “I already had read, in translation, and in borrowed editions, all the books I would have needed to learn the novelist’s craft. . . . William Faulkner was the most faithful of my tutelary demons.” Then he goes on to say: “I stayed in my room to read . . .books I obtained by chance and luck. . . . These [were] like bread warm from the oven, printed in Buenos Aires in new translations after the long hiatus in publishing because of the Second World War. In this way I discovered, to my good fortune, the already very-much-discovered Jorge Luis Borges, D. H. Lawrence and Aldous Huxley, Graham Greene and Gilbert Chesterton, William Irish and Katherine Mansfield, and many others.” Of James Joyce’s Ulysses he writes: “It not only was the discovery of a genuine world that I never suspected inside me, but it also provided invaluable technical help to me in freeing language and in handling time and structures in my books.” And finally, this is how he describes the effect of reading Kafka for the first time: “I never again slept with my former serenity. The book was Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, in the false translation by Borges published by Losada in Buenos Aires, that determined a new direction for my life from its first line, which today is one of the great devices in world literature.” He may have called the translation “false” because, as he describes what he learned from Borges, all an author had to do was to write something for it to be true. In any event, in these brief passages, this remarkable novelist memorably evokes the breadth and vividness of a young writer’s education in the craft of writing fiction, an initiation that would not have been possible without the existence of literary translations. These books, and all the other books he read, had a defining impact on his formation as a writer and allowed him to read as an apprentice to authors who in fact served as long-distance mentors.

Someone once called Faulkner the best-known Latin American writer in English, a description that may be more than a mere witticism. He seems to have inherited and then transferred into  English the expansive Cervantean style that has had so profound an influence, both positive and negative, on all subsequent Spanish-language writers. Moreover, Cervantes created the form and shape of modern fiction, a genre transformation of fundamental importance regardless of the fiction writer’s language. The development of the novel in Europe, especially in eighteenth-century England and in the seminal work of Henry Fielding, grew directly out of the model of Don Quixote, which was translated almost immediately after publication. Thomas Shelton’s English version, published in 1611, was the first translation into any language of the first part of Cervantes’ novel, which appeared in 1605. The speculation that Shakespeare intended to write a play based on the adventures of Cardenio, the protagonist of one of the interpolated narratives in the first part of Don Quixote, or actually did write the play, though it unfortunately has been lost, becomes especially intriguing for our purposes because of the presence and success of Shelton’s translation in England, which initiated the long, multifaceted history of Cervantes’ influence on the growth of the novel, on the way novelists write, and certainly on the way Faulkner wrote.

There is no question that in the mid-twentieth century, Faulkner was the most important contemporary English-language writer in Latin America. His sonorous, eloquent, baroque style with its Cervantean resonances felt familiar to  Spanish-speaking readers, but I believe that even more decisive for his profound importance to the development of the Latin American novel, above all to the literary phenomenon called the Boom, was Faulkner’s mythic, megahistorical, multigenerational vision of the land and the people who live on it. Not only García Márquez but Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and a host of other contemporary Latin American novelists owe a serious debt to Faulkner (and certainly to Cervantes). None of this rich literary cross-fertilization could have happened if Cervantes, Faulkner, and so many others had never been translated.

By the same token, it is impossible to conceive of the contemporary novel in English without taking García Márquez into account (not to mention Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar). The influence of García Márquez’s writing—presumably in translation, as Faulkner’s influence in Latin America undoubtedly took place for the most part in Spanish—is evident in a gamut of prominent writers like Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, and Michael Chabon, to name only a few. It is wonderful to contemplate, isn’t it: the freedom García Márquez discovered in Joyce, and the structural and technical lessons he learned from him and from Faulkner, have been passed on to a younger generation of English-language fiction writers through the translated impact of the Colombian’s writing. The innovative process of discovery that has allowed major writers to flex authorial muscles beyond the limitations of a single language and a single literary tradition would not have been possible without access to translated books. Translation is, in fact, a powerful, pervasive force that broadens and deepens a writer’s perception of style, technique, and structure by allowing him or her to enter literary worlds not necessarily found in one national or linguistic tradition. Far beyond essentially pernicious anxieties of influence, writers learn their craft from one another, just as painters and musicians do. The days of direct apprenticeship are over, for the most part, except, of course, in formal, academic settings (creative writing programs, studio courses, or conservatory study, for example), but artists can find mentors in other ways. The more books from more places that are available to fledgling authors, the greater the potential flow of creative influence, the more irresistible the spark that ignites literary imaginations. Translation plays an inimitable, essential part in the expansion of literary horizons through multilingual fertilization. A worldwide community of writers would be inconceivable without it.

Goethe believed that a literature exhausts itself and its resources become vitiated if it closes itself off to the influences and contributions of other literatures. Not only literature but language itself thrives as it makes connections with other languages. The result of the linguistic infusion of new means of expression is an expansion of vocabulary, evocative potentiality, and structural experimentation. In other words, the broadening  of horizons that comes with translation does not affect only readers, speakers, and writers of a language, but the very nature of the language itself. The more a language embraces infusions and transfusions of new elements and foreign turns of phrase, the larger, more forceful, and more flexible it becomes as an expressive medium. How sad to contemplate the efforts of know-nothing governments and exclusionary social movements to first invent and then foster the mythical “purity” of a language by barring the use of any others within a national territory. The language they wish to preserve would eventually be worn away, eroded and impoverished by a lack of access to new and unfamiliar means of expression and communication, if it were not for irresistible, inevitable surges of enriching intercultural and multilinguistic currents across the world.

From Why Translation Matters. Copyright 2010 by Edith Grossman. Published 2010 by Yale University Press. By arrangement with Yale University. All rights reserved. Reposted from Words Without Borders.


Edith Grossman has been a professional translator since 1972, and a full-time translator since 1990. Her translations of writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Carlos Fuentes are contemporary classics. Her translation of Don Quixote is widely considered a masterpiece. Currently a Guggenheim Fellow, she lives in New York.

One Response to Why Translation Matters (excerpt) – Edith Grossman

  1. good post, added you to my RSS reader. Greetings from DC :)

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