Edith Grossman, began her career as a literary translator in the early 1970s, when Ronald Christ, then editor of Review, the publication of what was then the Center for Inter-American Relations and is now known as The Americas Society, asked me to translate a story by Macedonio Fernández called La cirugía de la extirpación psíquica.
I told him I was a critic, not a translator; he said I could call myself whatever I liked, but he thought I’d do a good job with the piece. More out of curiosity (about Macedonio and serious translating) than for any other reason, I agreed, and have never looked back. I enjoyed the work immensely, and still do, and particularly like working at home.
2, 3, 4. These are all essentially the same question, so I’ll reply with one answer. A literary translator is a writer who rewrites a work in another language. As a writer, a good translator is sensitive to the nuances of two different languages and is able to bridge the gap between them by finding equivalents, not exact duplicates (which don’t exist) for the first author’s turns of phrase. The tone, intention, and impact of the translation should be the same as in the original; the words and syntax can never be identical, since each language is a distinct, independent system. The first writer begins with the blank page; the second writer (the translator) begins with a written work and creates another, corresponding work in a different language.
5. The translation of poetry is difficult for the same reasons that the writing of poetry is difficult: it is, to my mind, the most creative use of language and requires sensitivity to the sound of words as well as their sense, to rhythm, to meter and rhyme, if they’re used, to line lengths, and to the multitude of poetic techniques the languages of the world employ. If there’s a theory behind the translation of poetry, I don’t know it.
6. The short answer is no. Translators don’t receive the recognition they deserve as the artists who open the door to the literary worlds of languages we don’t know. They are generally woefully underpaid and often have to struggle to have their name on the cover of a book.
7. I don’t believe that translation from Spanish is different in kind from any other kind of literary translation. The translator’s knowledge is different but the process is probably the same regardless of the languages involved.
8. I have to decide which meaning the author had in mind and perhaps find an equally ambiguous word in English.
9. Yes, I believe everything can be translated. I’ve been told that the Inuit have thousands of words for snow. They can all probably be translated but certainly would require more than a single word in English. The same is true for the countless words in Arabic for sand.
10, 11. The English-speaking world is, for reasons I cannot fathom, very resistant to translation. Only 2-3 percent of books published in both the United States and the United Kingdom each year are literary translations, as opposed to the statistics in the rest of the industrialized world, where the numbers range from 35-50 percent. Certainly the dominant position of English today can explain some, but not all, of this phenomenon. Those who suffer the most as a result are English-lanugage readers, who are denied access to important literature in a multitude of languages.
12. García Márquez is one of the great novelists of the 20th century and has had a huge influence on authors around the world. A few in English who surely wouldn’t write the way they do if they hadn’t read García Márquez, probably in translation, include Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, and Michael Chabon.
13. The “Boom” produced startling writers from all over Latin America. It was one of those inexplicable moments when a country or a culture experiences an explosion of creativity—the Renaissance in Italy, the Golden Age in Spain, and the Boom in Latin America. The names of the authors resonate with every reader: Juan Rulfo, Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and of course Gabriel García Márquez, to mention only a few.
14. I can’t say which book I’ve enjoyed most. I’ve been very lucky and have liked, and often loved, every work I’ve translated.
15, 16. The most challenging author and most difficult work I’ve translated is The Solitudes of Luis de Góngora. And perhaps because I had been interested in working on this extremely complex poem for years, actually translating the book and seeing it published gave me immense satisfaction.
17. I think I’d like to do a volume of Quevedo’s sonnets. He’s a master of the form, and I find these poems extraordinary.
18. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the poetry of Nicanor Parra, the Chilean antipoet, and my degree specialization was contemporary Latin American writing. In more recent years, however, I’ve translated books by Spaniards like Carmen Laforet, Julián Ríos, Antonio Muñoz Molina, and Carlos Rojas, and in the classic period, Miguel de Cervantes and Luis de Góngora. I also translated an anthology of Golden Age poets that included works by Jorge Manrique, Garcilaso de la Vega, Fray Luis de León, Lope de Vega, Luis de Góngora, Francisco de Quevedo, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.
19. I’m working now on an anthology of Sor Juana’s writing, and a future project is Cervantes’s complete exemplary novels, or novellas.
20. My advice to an aspiring translator is to keep reading and writing. Your knowledge of English is exceedingly important, since it allows you to find stylistic equivalents for whatever work you’re translating. Perhaps even more important is to love the process of translating: it’s a difficult and time-consuming way to spend your days, and devotion to the writing turns what’s arduous into a challenge.
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