Last month, when renowned translator Edith Grossman died at the age of 87, her obituary made headlines in leading newspapers across the world. In 2023, it’s no longer unusual to celebrate the legacy of great translators. In 2018, the death of Anthea Bell, best known as the translator of Franz Kafka and the Asterixcomics, also made news. And yet, as recently as 20 years ago, such adulation was rare.
Indeed, translators like Grossman fought bitterly to claim the credit they justly deserved. In 2003, when she published her English translation of Don Quixote, the 17th century Spanish classic by Miguel de Cervantes, Grossman had to demand that her publisher put her name on the cover of the book, alongside the original author’s. From the vantage of our politically woke times, when the omission of a translator’s name from the cover of a book is seen as a regressive anomaly rather than the norm, a demand like hers may not seem radical. But, in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, as Grossman was coming into her own as a translator, the balance of justice was far from even for literary translators.
For context, by 2003, Grossman had translated works by Gabriel García Márquez, like Love In The Time of Cholera(1988), and books by Carlos Fuentes and Isabel Allende. Profoundly impressed by her rigour, Márquez publicly praised her as his “voice in English”. However, the publishing industry hadn’t still woken up to the role translators play to keep the business of books alive and relevant.
The term “literary activism” has become fashionable of late. However, without being formally described as such, the actions of pioneers like Grossman amounted to activism of one kind or another. She raised her voice on behalf of her own tribe, men and women who toiled long and hard on translating texts, for little pay and lesser recognition. She also spoke up for the rights of non-English writers, neglected by the whims of an Anglophone publishing ethos, and deprived of a much wider readership. When you think of it, the Nobel Prize for Literature is available only to those who write in English, or have been translated into English, English being the common link among the members of the Swedish Academy.
One of the sharpest protests against such a systemic bias appears in a book by Grossman published in 2010. Why Translation Matters, which is part of the Why X Matters series by Yale University Press, makes a passionate case for the translator’s art. Literary translators, as Grossman says early on, are no less than “writers”. It’s a polemical statement, to say the least, even today but she rests it on a bedrock of unflappable logic.
In a series of short chapters, Grossman decodes the mysteries of translation, which, for her, begin as much with reading the original text as with listening to it. “We endeavour to hear the first version of the work as profoundly and completely as possible,” she writes, before going on to call translators “speakers of a second text”. A little later, Grossman adds, “translators translate context”. And, in yet another inspired passage, she imagines the translator-author relationship as being analogous to an actor’s with a script, or a musical performer’s with the composer’s notes.
Once again, Grossman’s emphasis on the ingenuous interpretive skills of translators may not seem striking in the 2020s. But she is rebelling against a literary establishment that had yet to make peace with the idea of translation being a valuable service to society. She is up against the formidable ecosystem of publishers, editors and reviewers (mostly male), who have scarcely paid serious attention to the labours of translation, unless to call out pedantic errors, or to dismiss it with platitudes like “seamless” or “competent”.
The lack of recognition of translation, Grossman argues, isn’t a simple matter of snobbery. It hints at deep-rooted xenophobia, a reluctance to let in the foreign, namely, the language and literature of immigrants and outsiders. Translations, by her moral yardstick, are a measure of a society’s willingness to be open to the unknown. At a practical level, too, without access to multiplicity, national literatures cannot prosper. Márquez, for instance, was a self-confessed admirer of the American master William Faulkner, whom he first read in a Spanish translation. Had he not read Faulkner, Márquez believed he wouldn’t have become the writer he did—and the world would have been a much poorer place.
Apart from laying out the political implications of translation, Grossman offers her priceless insights into its art. Her long chapter on translating poetry is a masterclass on close reading, etymology, prosody, and keen listening. The act of repeating the original lines, over and over, until they become incantatory is the opening scene in Grossman’s theatre of translation. It is followed by the transposition of syllables, meters and rhymes to recreate a phonetic magic in the target language. The process isn’t transactional as much as it’s symbiotic; one language enriching the other, the shifting meaning of words marking the passage of time and their evolution through the centuries.
In the chapter on translating Cervantes, undoubtedly her greatest achievement, Grossman elaborates on this process of linguistic osmosis at length, enlisting the specific choices she made as she worked on this project for two whole years. Instead of allowing the burden of tradition to weigh her down, she decided to translate Cervantes as a modern writer would, her goal being to make the text as smooth and enjoyable to a modern reader as possible, without a scholarly apparatus throttling the eccentric genius of the writer.
Reading Grossman on the art of translation, as well as her own translations, is a privilege, especially for those who think of words as precious currency. Her views on bad translations (“a breach of contract” between translator and writer) and her nerdy pleasure in unravelling linguistic secrets (“it was like doing an intense crossword puzzle” is how she remembered the experience of translating Márquez) stand out like beacons of light in a world where the sanctity of language is compromised every day, especially in translation.
Over the last decade, English publishing in India has seen a steady influx of translations. But translators like Grossman, who spent a lifetime thinking and refining their art, are still a rarity. From the focus on quantity instead of quality, to editorial deficiencies, to translators being paid a pittance, problems riddle the future of translations. Yet, if the past few years are anything to go by, translations arethe future of publishing in India—their persistence a sign of the health of our polity.
Somak Ghoshal is a writer and an editor based in Delhi.