‘Why Translation Matters’ by Edith Grossman

by nike, July 16, 2010

Edith GrossmanEdith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters is part of a series of books – Why X Matters – published by Yale University Press, and based on a lecture series of the same name. The book is slim – compact. Three of the four chapters are based on lectures Grossman gave at Yale, while the fourth is a reflection on Grossman’s translation of a series of poems, including reproductions of the poems both in their original Spanish, and in Grossman’s translations.

Grossman is passionate about the perceived handmaiden status of translators and translation in the literary field and, for the most part, her observations about the lack of visibility and respect translators are afforded, and the relative dearth of translations of non-English literature into English (the usual statistic quoted, and which Grossman also gives, is that only 3% of works published in English originated were originally published in other languages).

Grossman work has focused on Spanish to English translation: she has created award-winning translations of contemporary Spanish works, notably Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Maria Vargas Llosa, Jaime Manrique, Mayra Mantaro and Julián Ríos. She also worked on a translation of the sixteenth-century classic of Spanish literature: Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Her translation of Quixote is strikingly contemporary, and complemented by a wonderful labyrinth of footnotes that enrich the experience of reading.

Martin Amis once quipped, in The War against Cliché: Essays and Reviews 1971-2000 that:

While clearly an impregnable masterpiece, Don Quixote suffers from one fairly serious flaw – that of outright unreadability. This reviewer should know, because he has just read it. The book bristles with beauties, charm, sublime comedy; it is also, for long stretches (approaching 75% of the whole), inhumanly dull. … When the experience is over, and the old boy checks out at last (on page 846 – the prose wedged tight, with no breaks for dialogue), you will shed tears all right: not tears of relief or regret but tears of pride. You made it, despite all that Don Quixote could do.

Grossman’s translation is readable, and even grants the reader the kind of clarity of access to the world of Cervantes’s novel that can only come from reading the work alongside someone who assiduously points out the intertextual and cultural references a non-Spanish, non-sixteenth-century reader might be unaware of, without attempting to smooth over or justify the many oddities and confusions, contradictions and – dare one say it? – inconsistencies contained in this voluminous romp of a novel.

In her introduction to Don Quixote, Edith does not do the usual things. She does not justify the translation and publication of a new English-language version of Don Quixote, nor does she articulate the ways in which her own translation differs from, or improves upon, those that have come before.  Rather, her note is an introduction to her philosophy in regard to translating a classical work, which includes, essentially, the necessity of translating the work not only into English (that is, across languages) but also into the twenty-first century (across time).

In Why Translation Matters, Grossman mounts a spirited defence of her craft. Sometimes it seems as though she is duelling with ghosts of her own imagining – straw men – but at other times, the enemies of the translator she enumerates are many, and varied, and take on human flesh. Reviewers get a serve for their insensitivity to the translator’s impact on the reviewable aspects of a work, commissioning editors for failing to solicit enough translations, or pay the translator a respectable fee, some academics for insisting on works being taught only in their original languages (that anyone would argue for such a thing was a revelation to me), and so on.

Grossman argues passionately against the laziness of reviewers who, for the most part she argues, do not even acknowledge when a work under review is a translation or, if they do, rarely do more than cast a single sentence into the review, perhaps using the dreaded adjective ‘seamless’ or ‘able’. Grossman takes great pains to point out the problems with these appellations, and to propose that a critical vocabulary is required for speaking about translation that doesn’t ignore the translator’s role in bringing a work across from another language, and bemoans the inability of most reviewers to critically evaluate a work in translation.

At one stage, for example, she rails against the way that reviewers of works in translation speak about the ‘style and language’ as if the style is attributable solely to the original author. Grossman argues that the ‘style and language’ of a translation are that of the translator, not of the “original author”. I have two responses to this: one to quibble, and one to concur.

First, to concur: it seems to me that this is a similar gripe to the one I have of reviews of films based on novels, where the film reviewer insists on crediting the director, or filmmaker, with having created the story and characters his work depicts. Certainly, the filmmaker has created a version of these elements of the novel adapted, but the basic elements are usually lifted directly from the novel, and not out of the filmmakers imagination.

Second, a quibble. It seems to me that while it isn’t true to argue that the style and language of a translated work are not easily ascribable to the writer (I eschew Grossman’s term ‘original writer’ and ‘second writer’: it seems to me more appropriate to stick with the terms we have, and insist on the necessity and dignity of both roles), it is equally untrue to argue that the style is attributable to the translator. Instead, it seems to me, the style is the result of a delicate and often at least partly intuitive negotiation between the original author and the translator: an amalgam, or concert, of voices joined in song. Grossman herself writes, in a passage about the notoriously difficult first line of Don Quixote, that she chose the syntax that ‘felt right’ in the end. Hardly an argument for an intellectual or aesthetic assertion of the translator’s artistry, though a valid and important recognition of the role familiarity, intuition and linguistic flexibility play in the laying down of a line.

Grossman’s translation of the first line of Don Quixote is:

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.

You can make your own comparisons with those of Walter Starkie:

At a village of La Mancha, whose name I do not wish to remember, there lived a little while ago one of those gentlemen who are wont to keep a lance in the rack, an old buckler, a lean horse and a swift greyhound.

and Motteux:

At a certain village of La Mancha, which I shall not name, there lived not long ago one of those old-fashioned gentlemen who are never without a lance upon a rack, an old target, a lean horse, and a greyhound.

The Spanish is:

En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que vivía un hidalgo de los de lanza en astillero, adarga antigua, rocín flaco y galgo corredor.

For the most part, Why Translation Matters is a fascinating insight into the grievances, and the craft, of an intelligent, passionate and fascinating professional. But at other times … well, at other times it seems defensive, arrogant, and unnecessarily aggrieved. Or, perhaps, it is just that despite my sympathy for the overall thrust of Grossman’s argument, there are times when her arguments seem to me to be weakly constructed, times when I would like to ask her to be more precise.

For example, at one point Grossman writes:

But what never should be forgotten or overlooked is the obvious fact that what we read in a translation is the translator’s writing. The inspiration is the original work, certainly …

I got quite cross at Grossman here, or, rather, frustrated. What Grossman overlooks, or refuses to acknowledge, is that the noun ‘writing’ in the first sentence is not reducible to the level of the sentence, of word choice, syntax, rhyme and rhythm in poetry, etc. As complex and essential as these elements of craft are to writing (both as noun and verb), writing also includes theme, story, character, structure – to name just a few – and translators, no matter how interventionist or insensitive (and Grossman, I want to be clear, is rarely an insensitive translator, though she is sometimes quite invasive, as most translators are, and perhaps must be), rarely if ever tamper with these larger elements of a work in translation. I was frustrated by Grossman’s attempt to inflate the role of the translator at the expense of the writer: why not be satisfied with a more modest claim that is, at once, more accurate and more defensible? Why not stick to the claim that the style, or voice, in a translated work is largely the province of the translator? Why insist on the larger, more (implicitly) holistic, and more inaccurate claim that the whole work is that of the translator, ‘inspired’ by that of the author?

Perhaps, in one sense, Grossman is trying to be accurate in her use of the term inspired, or at least classically, etymologically accurate.

The word inspiration comes into English from the Latin noun inspiratio and from the verb inspirare. “Inspirare” is a compound term resulting from the latin prefix “in” (inside, into) and the verb “spirare” (to breathe). “Inspirare” meant originally to breathe in or inhale.

In post-Augustan Rome “inspirare” became to mean “to breathe deeply” and assumed also the figurative sense of “to instill [something] in the heart or in the mind of someone”. It is this later sense of the word that gets carried across in the idea of artistic inspiration. When Homer invokes the muse at the beginning of The Iliad, it is so that she – who was present at the historical events he is about to relate – may inform his account with her more truthful, more accurate one. The Muses were often invoked at or near the beginning of an ancient epic poem or classical Greek hymn – partly as a kind of reassurance that the narrative was not created by the weak, mortal, limited human, but was received from an ahistorical, immortal creature – a witness who spoke truly of the events. Homer, in this sense, can be understood as being conscious of, or at least paying lip-service to, his role as a mere vessel for the words of the muse: she breathes into, or through, him the words he then writes. In the Fagles translation the poet begins:

Rage – Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaens countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving towards its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles

Elsewhere in the book, Grossman has an entertaining, if slightly bemusing, rant about the fact that her UK editors wanted to anglicise her American translation of Quixote: translating the American spelling into UK spelling, and occasionally (she doesn’t give examples, so I’m not sure how extensive the requested changes were) requesting, or requiring, changes to syntax.

Her resistance to this process of transatlantic translation bemused me. As a non-American writer, I’ve often been privy to the distress of non-American writers having their work published in North America, and the consequent requirements for Americanising (Americanizing?) the text. And, to be honest, I’ve often been sympathetic to their resistance to such shifts, particularly when the text in question is about non-American characters, set in non-American cities, and/or featuring non-American dialogue. It seems odd, to me, to ask that an Australian character be asked to use the term SUV or truck, when the Australian word ‘ute’ (and the object it relates to) is not really equivalent. As Walter Benjamin argues, the German brot and the French pain “intend the same object but the modes of intention are note the same,” and, as Michael Wood observes, even this notion is problematic since French bread and German bread are quite different: the intention (The signified/the thing itself) is not the same for a German speaker as it might be for a French speaker.

And yet, my surprise at Grossman’s rejection of her UK publishers requests is less to do with the battle between various, competing forms of English, and the underlying histories of colonialism that might be understood to inform such tensions, as to do with the fact that, as a translator, she does not stop to consider the irony of her resistance.

Firstly, the work in question – Don Quixote –  was not originally written in American English, or idiom, but in sixteenth-century Spanish, and it seems to me to be odd to insist on the American spelling and idiom when there is no evidence for its necessity, or essential relation to the original. Does Grossman want to insist that there is some essential, necessary quality of Americanness in the translation? I don’t know.

Secondly, in some sense, what she is being asked to agree to is a translation, from the Spanish, via the American translation, into British. That is, in the final translational transaction, from one regional dialect into another. Why would a translator, who is at pains elsewhere in her book to resist the hierarchisation of langugages, resist such a thing? Privilege one language, or one dialect, over another? There is some suggestion in Grossman’s work that the resistance is partly political: a resistance to the colonial mother country’s publisher’s insistence on the mother-tongue, but this is a bit of a red herring, surely. Anyone with an even passing awareness of the various, competing dialects of English in the contemporary world is aware that American spelling and grammar have become dominant in the contemporary world.

In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein writes (or, rather, Anscombe translates):

Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a maze of new boroughs with straight, regular streets and uniform houses.

In some sense, if we think of English as ‘our language’ in this context, American, (and Australian, and New Zealand English, and Canadian, etc), are boroughs within the broader city that include some districts of the ‘old cities’ from which our languages evolved, and some of those crisp new streets. When we cross this ancient city, moving through the ordered districts into and through the Calvino-esque centre, we travel through various dialects, various histories of our shared language, but we can never arrive at a pure source: the old city has been cannibalised, its towers torn down and the bricks and glass used to construct new churches and squares, new blocs and streets. To insist on the primacy of one dialect, particularly outside of its neighbourhood, is, it seems to me, a kind of foolishness. An inconsiderate arrogance. The language of my streets is my language, and the language of your streets is yours, and if you want to walk the streets of my language, and converse with the natives, it helps to speak the local patois – out of respect as much as out of a need to communicate – just as it helps for me to learn a little of yours when I watch your TV, or read imported books, or listen to you speak.

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