Why Translation Matters

I come to Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman as an armchair translator. While I certainly appreciate and admire the work of translators, I am not a professional and perhaps for that reason I cannot see the reasoning behind so many five-star Amazon ratings for this book. That said, for those who are interested in translators and translation studies–likely a very small number who take a passionate interest in the subject without pursuing a career in the field–I myself cannot say that I was moved to rave about Why Translation Matters.

Grossman is an award-winning translator of Spanish literature into English. My own studies of literature and indeed of translation focus on French and German. I spent albeit one year of university doing nothing but translation: from English to French and vice versa, and also from English to German and vice versa. Grossman reminded me of the joyous discoveries of translation I made while in these courses. 

Some of my professors were adamant in their belief that the role of the translator is not to enhance the original text, but to translate only what was put in front of you. I can agree with this statement up to a point, but such a standpoint and its limitations lends itself to the translator’s downfall of literal word-for-word calquing. I always found such translation instructions terribly restricting. I much preferred to try to capture, as Grossman idealizes, the mood of the sentence, the entire atmosphere around the original language and then containing the experience in the language of translation. 

Grossman captures the feel of Cervantes and seventeen-century Spanish in her chapter on translating Don Quixote. She approaches the novel with the question of what voice to capture it in English: 

“Would I, in short, be able to write passages that would afford English-language readers access to this marvelous novel, allow them to experience the text in a way that approaches how readers in Spanish experience it now, and how readers experienced it four hundred years ago?” 

I myself wonder how translators of older English works translate them into the second language. How does one translate the works of Shakespeare into French? Should the translator use the French of the late sixteenth century? Or modern French? Grossman had to face this dilemma and after a consultation with Spanish writer Julián Ríos, she realizes: 

“All I had to do, according to Julián, was translate Cervantes the way I translated everyone else, meaning the contemporary authors whose works–Ríos’s included–I had brought over into English.” 

As an amateur translator I am awed by those who translate poetry well, and am practically on the floor if the translator has managed to make the translation rhyme. Grossman is well versed in poetic structures and foreign traditions and possesses intimate analytical detail in her knowledge. Her points on syllables and meter were the most interesting. Since English has by far more monosyllabic words than Spanish, she has had sometimes to flesh out her English translations with words to maintain the rhythm while not detracting from the original poem. Grossman explains with care when she added filler, or rhythm words to her translated poems.

Grossman often bemoans the current state of affairs in regards to the dearth of English translations of novels in the United States and United Kingdom. I must distance myself from this statement because as a library worker I see plenty of them in the fiction collection, and since I do have a background in European literature (reading not only French and German, but also Finnish, Romansch and easy-level Breton) I am always on the lookout for English fiction translations from any language. I in fact actively pursue translations in the catalogue, by using the appropriate search terms. Grossman avoids putting on a woe-is-me attitude in expressing, several times in her brief 138-page work, incredulous shock and dismay that book reviewers rarely mention the names of the translators whose work made the books accessible to them in the first place. She will be happy to know that I always credit the translator in any of my book reviews.

While I am certain that I would have sat spellbound as I listened to one of literature’s premiere translators such as Grossman present the lectures she shares in Why Translation Matters, I unfortunately found most of the text to be a slow read. When Grossman conveys emotion in her translation analysis, the read flows like a successful translation. I am sorry not to give Why Translation Matters a favourable review, but I will definitely seek out Grossman’s translated works of Spanish classics.

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