By Bruce Jacobs

“Why Translation Matters”
By Edith Grossman
Yale University Press ($24.00, 117 pp.)

Academic lectures are usually snoozers in person.  They can be even worse when transcribed into a book, the intent of which is usually to satisfy the surprisingly still prevalent “publish or perish” mandate for academic success (the “perish” part being dramatically illustrated recently by the infamous Amy Bishop shootout at the University of Alabama-Huntsville). Once in a long while a miracle happens, and we are treated to a presentation that holds together as a book and also entertains and enlightens.  “Why Translation Matters” by Edith Grossman is such a miracle.

Grossman is a professional translator, best known for her 2003 translation of “Don Quixote” (although she has a substantial shelf of other translations including the works of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, and Ríos.)   In 2008 she delivered these lectures at Yale and, when the Yale University Press decided to publish them in book form, she wrote a third section on the difficult craft of translating poetry.

Grossman is clearly a champion of her profession. She calls it “a much-maligned activity that is often either discounted as menial hackwork or reviled as nothing short of criminal.”

“I can think of no other profession whose practitioners find themselves endlessly challenged to prove to the world that what they do is decent, honorable, and most of all, possible,” she says.

It is this passion that most elevates Grossman’s book from the usual academic jibber-jabber.  She uses her Yale podium to have her way with publishers, book critics, fellow academics, xenophobic politicians, and a reading public which so hates translations that publishers rarely put the translator’s name on the cover of the book lest a potential reader discover that Cervantes really didn’t write in English.

“In the United States and the United Kingdom only two to three percent of books published each year are literary translations,” she laments. In Western Europe and Latin America, the number is anywhere from twenty-five to forty percent.  Publishers who insist translations don’t sell and book critics who don’t, or don’t know how to, review them are “a product of intransigent dilettantism and tenacious amateurism.”

Grossman’s penchant for engaging in verbal sparring with the literary establishment can be fun, and we all like nothing better than watching an academic catfight. But Grossman makes a good case for her angry frustration and an even better case for “why translation matters.”

In our Post-9/11 world where we build real walls to keep out illegals and metaphorical walls of regulations to keep out legals, a better understanding of other cultures is sorely needed.  She states it in simple terms:  “As the world seems to grow smaller and more interdependent and interconnected while, at the same time, nations and peoples paradoxically become increasingly antagonistic to one another, translation has an important function to fulfill that I believe must be cherished and nourished.”

As for the “English-only” zealots, she points out that any language that becomes isolated from others dies a slow death.  “The more a language embraces infusions and transfusions of new elements and foreign turns of phrase, the larger, more forceful, and more flexible it becomes as an expressive medium,” she writes. “The clear consequence is the sheer vibrancy and flexibility of the language and its huge, constantly expanding, wonderfully contaminated, utterly impure lexicon.”

“Why Translation Matters” is not all academic vitriol.  Grossman takes considerable time to discuss the nuances and challenges of translation.  With interesting examples she makes a strong case for translation as an interpretation of context more than the literal transcription of words.

She points out that the original author must “translate” his imaginative vision into his own “slippery, paradoxical, ambivalent, and explosive” language, but then the translator must translate this again into a second language “just as elusive, just as dynamic, and just as recalcitrant as the first.”

It would have been a pleasure to hear Grossman deliver her thoughts in person; I can imagine her finger pointing and her voice rising, but also hear the quiet of her recitation of a 17th century sonnet in its original Spanish and in her English translation.

Absent that, this compact little book is more than adequate.  The next time I want to grouse because a menu is only in Spanish, I will keep my mouth shut and enjoy the challenge of learning something new about the food, and language, of the world.

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