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.


Nevertheless Grossman sees not indifference but a vast hostility to translation. Translation is often “discounted as menial hackwork or reviled as nothing short of criminal” (p. 64); publishers have a “lethal disinclination” to publish translations (p. 43), evincing “suspicion and resistance” (p. 49); editors show “bare-faced chauvinism and unforgivable, willful know-nothingness (p. 45); translators face dismissive and “iniquitous” reviewers (p. 65); the growth of America’s “intense jingoistic parochialism” (p. 42) leads many readers to “stubbornly and willfully insist on remaining ignorant” of other cultures (p. 56); some people apparently believe that “translators are acutely and incurably pathological” (p. 64)

Grossman especially demands more English translations, because without intermediate translations into English, many people could not have access to world literatures. She writes that most translations are not from the original language but from English translations of the originals. Latin American readers first encountered Russian novels through translations from their French versions. There may be no translator capable of translating Croatian poetry directly into Vietnamese, for example, but one person can translate the Croatian original into English, and another translator can turn that English version into Vietnamese.

Poetry translations are notoriously challenging, but Grossman rejects Robert Frost’s notion that poetry is what gets lost in translation…

Never far from marketplace pragmatism, she also argues that writers must be published in English to make a living, because their native language markets are too small, or to win the Nobel prize, since judges cannot read all languages. Poets and fiction writers might be less interested in Grossman’s ab irato arguments against publishers, reviewers, and editors, than in her principles and praxis. As a translator, she is necessarily more attentive to specifics of language and literary form than many literary critics and reviewers.

Grossman’s principles align her with the paraphrasts whom John Dryden identified as the best of the three types of translators, not the literalists or imitators. She translates so that her reader “will perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to, the aesthetic experience of its first readers” (p. 7). Good translations are “faithful to contextual significance,” not to words or syntax (p. 71). A good translation is “faithful to the aesthetic and emotive reality of its source and is a consistently true and accurate reflection” of the original (p. 100).

In additon, the author does not address flawed translations, except as they arise from faulty methodology, but even these can be enlightening to readers and writers. Clumsy early 20th-century translations of Chinese poetry and Ernest Fenollosa’s inaccurate The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, for example, brought a vast and rich literature to western readers, profoundly influencing western poetic development.

Poetry translations are notoriously challenging, but Grossman rejects Robert Frost’s notion that poetry is what gets lost in translation (p. 64). She identifies the linguistic and artistic difficulties clearly, not as a cause for despair but as a guide to composing the best translation possible. Trying to recreate too many aspects of the original is impossible, which is why she finds Vladimir Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin nearly unreadable. “How would I write the poem if I were composing it in English within the formal constraints set by the poet?” (p. 96), the author questions, perceiving the process of translation as “essentially auditory” (p. 12). The most important element to preserve from the original poem is rhythm, the beat of a line being “crucial to both the spirit and the letter of the entire poetic statement” (p. 97).

Grossman convincingly argues that translation is like the primary act of writing, “as noteworthy and estimable as the original,” (p. 92), and potentially “of equal value” (p. 99). Here she endorses John Felstiner’s call for recognition of the translator as a creator co-equal with the original poet or novelist, and suggests in an aside that universities should begin programs in translation studies. Her reader is likely to agree after reading her detailed analyses of her own translation experiences and her astute remarks about the nature of writing, poetry especially.

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