In Defense of Translation: Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman

Why Translation Matters
BY Edith Grossman
(Yale University Press, 2010)

From the Publisher:

Why Translation Matters argues for the cultural importance of translation and for a more encompassing and nuanced appreciation of the translator’s role. As the acclaimed translator Edith Grossman writes in her introduction, ‘My intention is to stimulate a new consideration of an area of literature that is too often ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented.’

For Grossman, translation has a transcendent importance: ‘Translation not only plays its important traditional role as the means that allows us access to literature originally written in one of the countless languages we cannot read, but it also represents a concrete literary presence with the crucial capacity to ease and make more meaningful our relationships to those with whom we may not have had a connection before. Translation always helps us to know, to see from a different angle, to attribute new value to what once may have been unfamiliar. As nations and as individuals, we have a critical need for that kind of understanding and insight. The alternative is unthinkable.’”

Edith Grossman’s magisterial translations of Don Quixote and several Latin American writers are wonderful gifts to English language readers, none of whom would need to be convinced that translation matters, but all of whom would be pleased to hear what she has to say. Writers especially will find this book illuminating.

Why Translation Matters is based on three lectures delivered at Yale, with interesting additional remarks on translating poetry. Grossman establishes the importance of translations with detailed, incisive excursions on her own methods, considers the effect on writers, language, and civilization itself, emphasizing the last, and argues with elements of publishing who hamper translation.

Writers become themselves in part by the influence of translations. Grossman notes that García Márquez’s intensely excited readings in Faulkner and James Joyce revealed the mythic, historical, stylistic, and structural possibilities that made him the writer he is. In turn García Márquez has influenced a generation of English language writers.

Grossman’s most interesting remarks on the importance of translation consider civilization broadly: Intellectual progress, human rights, international understanding, cultural tolerance, and liberty itself depend upon the free exchange of ideas, styles, and formal innovations across linguistic borders. Grossman might have added that the translation of even single words can have monumental effects on contemporary human life. What does “jihad” mean to an English-speaking Muslim, and thus what does it require of believers?

…Intellectual progress, human rights, international understanding, cultural tolerance, and liberty itself depend upon the free exchange of ideas, styles, and formal innovations across linguistic borders.

The Enlightenment principle of intellectual progress through exposure to new ideas and styles, while neither new or controversial, leads Grossman to her most contentious assertions, her screed against American and UK publishers. Because translation is essential in promoting freedom, international understanding, and intellectual development, English language publishers “have an ethical and cultural responsibility to foster literature in translation” (p. 59). But they do the opposite, she insists.

With three Stieg Larsson novels simultaneously on American best seller charts at one point, we might think that most publishers and mass market readers are indifferent to translation issues, so long as the novels are entertaining. Compared to just a few years ago, today’s readers of serious literature live in a relative golden age when myriad foreign language writers are available in English translation.

Anyone in her sixties recalls the dark years when all Russian literature was translated by Constance Garnett, and when only a few outlier publishers like New Directions published obscure, innovative foreign poets and novelists. Now readers can enjoy comparing several good translations of Dante, Tu Fu or Homer. Even if some poets like Wislawa Szymborska are available in only one translator’s versions, at least many such foreign language poets are on the shelves.

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