September 2005


Don Quixote, Translators, & Edith Grossman

This post isn’t about Buenos Aires specifically but anyone interested in Spanish literature knows that 2005 is the 400th anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote. Go to a bookstore in Buenos Aires and you can’t miss it.

A number of editions are available. For English language readers, picking the right translation sometimes can be a challenged. Earlier this year I was browsing in a Barnes & Noble in Miami and came across the classic book section. Prominently displayed in a new edition, published by Barnes & Noble, was Don Quixote. The first thing I do when picking up any translated book is to check the name of the translator. This edition of Don Quixote was translated by Tobias Smollett. I found it quite funny that Barnes & Noble would promote an 18th century translation of what many call the world’s greatest novel. Of course, Barnes & Noble probably could get the rights to that version since that version is likely in the public domain. I feel sorry for the readers who choose the Smollett translation with its rather antiquated style. They probably will end up hating Quixote and will never understand what all the fuss is about. From the Amazon’s reviews of the Smollett translation there are obviously some people who like it, though I suspect that they haven’t examined the other translations too closely.

Yet, Smollett’s version is one of the most known English translations due to its wide availability, which perhaps explains why Don Quixote has never been particularly popular in English except mostly among those who study literature. There’s even an entire niche discipline in literary studies that focuses on nothing but English translations of Cervantes. Indeed, it’s a great example for comparative study of the issues involved in translation.

The translation that is getting all the attention this year is the new one by Edith Grossman, one of the best translators working today. Incidentally, Grossman got her start in this field by translating a story by Macedonio Fernández, a little known Argentine writer greatly admired by Borges. After translating Love in the Time of Cholera by Gárcia Márquez, she started translating full-time. Some of Grossman’s other translations include five other works by Gárcia Márquez, whom she says is harder to translate than Cervantes. She also has translated numerous works by Vargas Llosa, as well as dozens of books other Spanish language writers.

Grossman offers this advice to translators:

“Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation. Let me insist on the obvious: Languages trail immense, individual histories behind them and no two languages, with all their accretion of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly. Fidelity is our noble purpose, but it does not have much, if anything, to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely to be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable….To re-create significance for a new set of readers, translators must make the effort to enter the mind of the first author through the gateway of the text – to see the world through another person’s eyes and translate the linguistic perception of that world into another language. The better the original writing, the more exciting and challenging the process is.”

To learn more about Grossman see “At the Service of Language”, Bach, Caleb. Américas. Dec 2004, p 24.

If you’re embarking on your own reading of Don Quixote then you should definitely take a look at 400 Windmills, a group blog dedicated to discussing Don Quixote.

Américas magazine

Anyone interested in cultural and historical topics about Latin America should consider subscribing to the magazine published by the Organization of American States, Américas. There are both English and Spanish editions of the magazine. I brought with me a large number of articles from it that are related to Argentina when I moved here. In future postings, I’ll try to summarize some of them.

Marginalizing literature

Times are getting more and more difficult for translating literature into other languages, particularly English. Basically, it’s a business issue. English language publishers see a limited market for translated works and so just focus on a narrow set of the biggest name writers. Almost anyone can name the list: Garcia Marquez, Borges, Cortazar, Fuentes, Allende, and Vargas Llosa are at the top of the list followed by just a small handful of others. The problem isn’t limited to Spanish works. Indeed, Spanish is likely very well represented when compared to most other languages. However, a significant amount of the global culture is being marginalized through the inaccessibility of literature in translation.

Jeremy Munday, now Deputy Director of the Centre for Translation Studies at the University of Surrey, wrote an article in the mid-90s that examines these issues. Things haven’t improved and the same article could just as well have been written now rather than ten years ago. Munday closes with an observation about Venezuela, but his statement could apply to the literature of most of the world:

“The possibility exists, therefore, that these particular voices and the culture of a whole country will remain silenced, marginalized, unable to communicate outside their own language. The vicious distorting circle persists of insular English-language readers, of publishers unable or unwilling to take a risk, the concentration on a few ‘safe’ writers.”

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