Margin: Exploring Modern Magical Realism

T R A N S L A T O R   I N T E R V I E W
On Translating the Prince of Wits:
a n   i n t e r v i e w   w i t h   e d i t h   g r o s s m a n

BY JOEL WHITNEY for Guernica

EDITH GROSSMAN is the translator of Miguel de Cervantes's Don Quixote (Ecco/Harper Collins, 2003), as well as Living to Tell the Tale, the first volume of Gabriel García Márquez's three-volume memoir. Dubbed the "Glenn Gould" of translating by Harold Bloom, Grossman has brought Cervantes's masterpiece into its most crisp English yet, 400 years after its original publication, and her version has been hailed by Carlos Fuentes in The New York Times as "a major literary achievement."

Grossman was educated at the University of Pennsylvania, UC Berkeley and New York University. After years of teaching, she began translating full time, and since Love in the Time of Cholera she has translated all of García Márquez's books, as well as works by Mario Vargas Llosa, Mayra Montero, Alvaro Mutis, and Julián Ríos. She lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and works from her spacious first-floor apartment, where she greeted me on a bitingly cold January day for a brief discussion of her work. The walls were decorated with Mayan and Aztec tapestries, prints by Picasso and Frida Kahlo, and the apartment was strewn with books on Spain, Latin America and many of her own translations of Latin American authors, which she is rereading in preparation for a new course she will teach at Columbia University that begins this week.

She offered me tea and sipped water while we talked, with calm jazz playing in the background. Frequently during the discussion, when she found the right word or landed on a point she was emphatic about, she grew animated and enthusiastic, nodding and laughing so that her mounds of platinum curls stretched and retracted.

Guernica: Congratulations on all your ongoing success.

Edith Grossman: Thank you.

G: Much has been made of the 100 acclaimed writers who in 2002 voted Don Quixote the greatest book of all time—is that what they called it?

EG: Yes.

G: What makes this book so great in your opinion? I know that’s something you could teach a few courses on, but…

EG: A few, yes. One fast answer is: just read it and you’ll find out. I think everything that can make artful prose memorable makes this book memorable. I think it’s beautifully written. The characters are—especially Don Quixote and Sancho—archetypal in a way that few other fictional characters are. Perhaps Faust and Hamlet. Maybe Don Juan. Playing with reality, the way reality and the imagination and fiction impinge on each other is something that is so Borgesian in its impact that it is hard to conceive of the fact that it was written 400 years ago. It’s positively postmodern.

G: That’s what astonishes me when I read it now is that Borges really did sort of retroactively preconceive of his own influences in Cervantes, if that makes any sense.

EG: I know. One could argue that the possibilities of European poetry were determined by Petrarch and everybody else has been a footnote on Petrarch. I think I’m quoting Whitehead, who said “the history of philosophy is footnotes on Plato.” Likewise, I think the notion of the modern European novel was determined by Cervantes. I think it’s fair to say, for stylistic reasons, for structural reasons, and even for the philosophical implications of fictional characters meeting one another in what is allegedly reality, which blows my mind.

G: You’re talking about when the fake Quixote meets the real Quixote—

EG: Oh, when he hears them talking! He hears the men talking in the inn about having met Don Quixote, the false Don Quixote…

G: When he incorporates the counterfeit version of his own text into Book 2 of Quixote?

EG: Yes, and that’s why Quixote had to die, so that no one could do another false Quixote. Cervantes was allegedly well into part 2, chapter 50 or so, when the false Quixote was published, and he must have been very worked up about it. I don’t think it’s accidental that he died the year following. Part 2 was published in 1615 and he died in 1616.

G: In the prologue to Book 2 you can hear some of his rage, though it’s veiled in irony, against the creator of the false Quixote.

EG: No question. That also has to do with the attacks. I haven’t read the false Quixote but apparently it’s a pretty good book, not a dreadful piece of writing at all. But there were attacks on Cervantes in the false Quixote for having attacked Lope de Vega. Lope and Cervantes were rivals. Sort of like Norman Mailer talking about everybody in his generation he saw as a rival. You remember that weird essay he wrote on his generation then, picking up on this whole series of writers—I can’t remember who—talking about who was as good as Mailer was and who wasn’t as good.

G: I guess this all speaks to how modern it was and why critics call it the “first modern novel.”

EG: Yes, it’s hard to say why academics or critics say what they say, but I think what speaks most to the modernity of it is the fact that the characters change so much. They are not at the end of the book who they were at the beginning. There were wonderful earlier pieces of fiction, like Lazarillo de Tormes, which was the first picaresque novel—which is a brilliant piece of writing, just beautiful. But there is no change. The characters are set and there are a series of adventures that befall them.

Quixote and Sancho have a series of adventures, but they change. Sancho becomes more and more like Quixote. Quixote affects reality and reality affects him and there is an interchange and a transformation.

G: So it harkens in a way back to Greek tragedy, where the characters have this—

EG: The arc. Yes, there is an arc and—as far as I know—that kind of arc didn’t exist in modern Europe, in prose. Perhaps in drama and in epic poems. But the novel was a modern invention. I don’t think it was happening until Cervantes.

G: Do you have a favorite moment or scene or exchange in Don Quixote?

EG: There are a couple of moments that I find amazing. One is early on in part 1 when Quixote comes to the inn—before he’s teamed up with Sancho so it’s very early in part 1—and at the inn are a couple of prostitutes in the doorway, and he thinks they’re ladies. So he begins to speak to them in the most elaborate way. And they don’t have a clue what he’s talking about. And this is when he won’t allow them to take his helmet off because he made it out of cardboard and he doesn’t want to risk it falling apart. So they have to help him eat his supper, because he has to hold up the visor, and the innkeeper gives him a straw so he can drink a little wine. It’s a very visual moment. It’s one of the things that Cervantes does so well—create scenes that are almost like genre paintings, where it’s so easy to visualize what the characters look like and what they’re doing.

Another moment that I love is at the very end when Quixote is dying after he’s recovered his reason, and Sancho has tears in his eyes and tells him "Don’t die, don’t die. We’ll go and be shepherds,” because they keep playing with the idea of going to do the pastoral—since they’ve already done the chivalric novel. There’s a bit of a picaresque novel in the galley slave chapters, the galley slave who steals Sancho’s donkey, Ginés de Pasamonte—he’s been writing his memoirs, which of course are a picaresque novel. And it couldn’t be anything else. These are some of the moments I find amazing.

G: From your point of view, is Cervantes taking on Spain’s empire, taking on the Crusades, Catholicism, veiling his autobiography as a soldier—or is he mainly just doing a parody on the chivalric novel?

EG: I don’t know. I don’t think he was taking on anybody. I’m not certain why one would think that he was dissident. That the Muslims in the novel are treated with great humanity—I don’t know if that is a dissident position for him to be taking. He makes it very clear that he thinks the Muslims had to be finally expelled right around the time he was writing part 1 (I think in 1603 the Muslims and even people who had converted from Islam were expelled—one of those ghastly things that was happening in Europe.). I don’t know if that counts as…

G: He certainly wouldn’t have been able to make a more overt criticism.

EG: Not at all. It’s very interesting. The Inquisition was not concerned about much in Quixote, except when one character makes a rosary out of an old shirt, sort of knotting it up. And they objected to that as being disrespectful.

But when Sancho runs into Ricote, his old neighbor, who was being expelled from Spain, there was nothing there that the Inquisition objected to. So I think it wasn’t much of an attempt to criticize. As for autobiography, I think there was some.

G: The Captive’s Tale.

EG: Yes. I think all novelists incorporate their lives in various degrees, either recognizably or unrecognizably, because our perceptions of the world are determined by the lives we live and are reflected in what we write. So I think his reflections on the lives of prisoners in North Africa come out of the fact that he was a prisoner there himself. His knowledge of Italian probably comes from the fact that he spent so much time in Italy. So that’s reflected, of course. Whether he saw himself as a failed knight—I don’t know. Perhaps.

G: A battered soldier?

EG: He was certainly a battered soul and a battered soldier. And he spent various times in prison and did not have a very happy family life. So he may have identified with Quixote. But it’s hard not to identify with Quixote, because who among us does not think—"I’m the one who can see the greater reality and everyone around me fails to see it"?

G: And in turn sees me as a fool for—

EG: For seeing the greater reality, exactly. I mean that is one of the attractions of the book, that it appeals to many aspects of the human conundrum.

G: How do you see it—as a sad book? A funny book? Both?

EG: It’s very interesting. Over the years my opinion has changed. When I first read it, I read it in translation as a teenager. I was sixteen or seventeen years old and I thought it was the saddest damn book I ever read in my life. What happened to Quixote just broke my heart. And through my twenties I saw it as an immensely tragic book. But as I got older I found it funnier and funnier. And when I was translating it I was actually laughing out loud at times, because some of the scenes are high comedy and some are the lowest kinds of slapstick burlesque. And so I saw myself finding it funnier and funnier. But of course all great comedy has a substratum of tragedy, so I think it is both immensely sad and tremendously funny.

G: So, did you have apprehensions about translating such a masterpiece as Don Quixote?

EG: I was terrified. Some of it is that this book occupies the place of a sacred text. It is one of the pillars of Hispanic literature and of European literature and therefore world literature. But more than the text itself, which I had read many times before this, was the idea of all the scholarship that had been devoted to Cervantes and to Quixote. I had bad dreams of hordes of indignant hispanists attacking my translation. But it was Julián Ríos—I say this in my translator’s note—who said, “Don’t be afraid. Translate it the way you translate everybody else because he’s the most modern writer we have.” And I realized I didn’t have to attempt to recreate 17th century diction because Cervantes was writing very modern Spanish. He was not creating anything quaint or archaic, except when Quixote goes off into one of his chivalric rants—and then he used older Spanish.

G: With a work like this, what gets lost in translation? What are you able to keep and what do you see—even while doing it—slipping away?

EG: You’re really asking the wrong person because as a translator I am committed to the fact that nothing gets lost. But of course, in this book, I used footnotes for the first time, which allowed me to explain some of the puns that I simply couldn’t bring over into English.

It is, by the way, why books like this have so many translations—because what one translator misses another can capture. But I really can’t answer the question of what got missed because if I knew I was missing it I wouldn’t have missed it.

G: I want to read back to you something you must have read and heard many times: "Though there have been many valuable English translations of Don Quixote, I would commend Edith Grossman's version for the extraordinarily high quality of her prose. The Knight and Sancho are so eloquently rendered by Grossman that the vitality of their characterization is more clearly conveyed than ever before. There is also an astonishing contextualization of Don Quixote and Sancho in Grossman's translation that I believe has not been achieved before. The spiritual atmosphere of a Spain already in steep decline can be felt throughout, thanks to her heightened quality of diction.

“Grossman might be called the Glenn Gould of translators, because she, too, articulates every note. Reading her amazing mode of finding equivalents in English for Cervantes's darkening vision is an entrance into a further understanding of why this great book contains within itself all the novels that have followed in its sublime wake."

That’s quite an endorsement from Harold Bloom…

EG: (Laughing) I must say. After Glenn Gould, who?

G: You’ve also translated a number of Gabriel García Márquez’s novels, everything since?—

EG: Everything since Love in the Time of Cholera, yes, which was published in the late eighties.

G: But I read that you don’t believe in this idea of "magic realism." You don’t buy into that way of talking about his fiction?

EG: No, I don’t.

G: I guess that was a phrase that was attached to him, right? Does he use that term?

EG: No, he doesn’t use that term at all, as far as I know. It’s always struck me as an easy, empty kind of remark. In other words, when you say "magic realism," what have you said about what kind of novels he writes? What have you said about the way Latin America, Colombia in particular, plays a part in his books? I don’t think you’ve said anything.

G: To play devil’s advocate: I always understood it as a way of describing this blurring of reality and fantasy, especially bringing in the Latin American oral tradition, fables and the magic of the indigenous cultures that were there.

EG: Of course, all fiction does that. I just read The Plot Against America a couple of weeks ago. Well, nobody would accuse Philip Roth of writing magic realism even though he takes a perfectly recognizable environment and creates fiction within it.

G: No. But he doesn’t have people with tails growing out of their spines…

EG: No, he doesn’t. But García Márquez didn’t do that all that much. In Love in the Time of Cholera there is nobody who levitates to heaven. I think that may have characterized One Hundred Years of Solitude, and it didn’t seem all that magical to me when I read it. It seemed like a way of writing about the exceptionalness of so much of Latin America.

G: Is that García Márquez’s project to you—in a nutshell?

EG: He is an heir to Cervantes as most writers in Spanish are, and he has the same kind of orotund—is that the word?—these huge, baroque phrases and sentences, and he has the same tragic-comic view of the world as Cervantes. There are amazingly funny scenes in García Márquez, and there is an underlying melancholy that runs through all of his books. But so, I will not use "magic realism" and when I used to teach I told my students they were allowed to say anything they wanted except two words in combination, and that was "magic" and "realism."

G: I read that you began studying Spanish in high school. Is that right?

EG: Yes.

G: And so how frequently do you come across a turn of phrase—whether slang or regional expressions—that you just don’t recognize?

EG: Very often.

G: And after looking for them in various dictionaries and you still can’t find them?

EG: Then I have very patient friends who help me. And then, since—until Cervantes—every author I translated was living, I could as a last resort get in touch with the author.

G: So, you’ve had contact with everyone you’ve translated except Cervantes?

EG: Except Cervantes. And the poets of the Golden Age, which I’m translating now.

G: Are you friendly with some of these writers? Do you hang out with them? For instance, García Márquez?

EG: Well, I see him when he comes to New York. I see Mayra Montero when she comes in. I talk to Mutis from time to time. I am in touch with Julián [Ríos] from time to time. I am very fond of these people. I just don’t travel much. And lately they don’t come to New York very often, for whatever reason.

G: What’s your impression of Gabriel García Márquez as a personality?

EG: He’s terrific. He’s very funny and very charming.

G: He's funny?

EG: Yes. For instance, when he found out I was translating Cervantes he said to me, "I hear you're two-timing me with Miguel."

G: What makes a good translator? I’ve heard you debate the merits of words like “seamlessness,” notions that compare translators to actors rendering what the writer would sound like in English, words like “invisibility”—but I think you favored “fidelity” as the translator's virtue.

EG: Yes, I think we have to be faithful to the context. But it’s very important to differentiate between fidelity and literalness. Because you can’t be faithful to words, words are different in different languages. You can’t be faithful to syntax, because that changes from one language to the other. But you can be faithful to intention and context. Borges allegedly said to one of his translators, “Don’t translate what I said. Translate what I meant to say.” That is, in fact, what a translator does. Because languages are very resonant and various levels of diction and styles of discourse echo in the mind of the native reader and native speaker. I always think that my job is to find the English that will resonate like the original Spanish for the English-speaking reader.

G: How long will a good translation typically last?

EG: That’s hard to say too. Tobias Smollett’s translation of Don Quixote, which I have not read, is supposed to be so wonderful that people still read it. Translations last until another translator comes along and does the same book again. Then the earlier translation may last anyway. But it’s really hard to say. Constance Garnett’s translations from Russian lasted eighty years, and a lot of the authors—Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Chekhov—have been retranslated.

G: Do you have a translator you hold up as a model for your career?

EG: I certainly admire Rabassa. I think Gregory Rabassa did a great service for the English language and for translators into English. He really did pioneer the translation of contemporary Latin American literature.

G: How many hours a day do you work?

EG: It depends on the project, but usually about six hours. Doing the Quixote, I usually worked longer hours.

G: Aside from translating others, do you write?

EG: I’m a closet poet. I’ve only had one poem published. I try to write fiction but every time I try I hack away at it and it turns into a poem or something other than fiction. I keep editing and cutting away until it turns into something else. I do write papers and articles, that kind of stuff.

G: Do you have a favorite writer?

EG: When I think of great contemporary writers the two names that come to mind are García Márquez and Philip Roth. I love them, but I think I love whatever book I’m reading. It’s hard to say who my favorite writer is but I think Roth has done for the United States what García Márquez has done for Colombia, which is to recreate a specific moment in the country’s history and explore it very deeply.

G: Do you have a readerly vice, a kind of reading you spend more time on than you’d like?

EG: No, but when I was a teenager I devoured science fiction. One day I suddenly found it so tedious that I couldn’t read it anymore. I used to read a lot of mystery but I’ve lost track of who the good mystery writers are. But my confession is my fondness for reruns of Law and Order.

G: Do you spend a lot of time watching television?

EG: When I put in a very hard day I find it hard to read for a few hours afterward. I find it difficult to concentrate on music. So, I just… It’s very passive and it’s all imagery and my mind unwinds from the puzzles of moving from one language to another.

G: Do you watch reality shows? Do you have a TV vice?

EG: No, but… Well, there’s… (Laughs) There’s a program on the Home Shopping Network that makes me laugh, because it’s unintentionally funny. I find it hilarious to watch that.

G: Who’s the sexiest writer you can think of?

EG: Hm. The sexiest writer. Well, I’m going to offend everybody in the entire world: Alvaro Mutis is the sexiest man and the sexiest writer I can imagine. And he’s over eighty years old.

G: Aha! An older man!

EG: And he is remarkable. But please don’t publish that.

G: But readers will be so curious they’ll go and look for his books to find a picture of him.

EG: Oh, alright. Go ahead. (Laughing)

G: If you could make any politician read any book, what politician and what book?

EG: Suppose we made George Bush read William Butler Yeats until he could talk about public men, though Yeats doesn’t deserve that.

G: And finally, if you had to live somewhere besides New York, where would you live?

EG: (Thinks awhile) Nowhere.

G: Thanks, Edith Grossman.

EG: Thank you, Joel.

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