The Making of a Translator: An Interview with Edith Grossman

Kimon Friar

By Maria Cecilia Salisbury

The following conversation took place in New York City during the Eighth International Conference of Translation at Barnard College. Edith Grossman (b. in Philadelphia, 1936) is today one of the most active and competent translators of Latin American literature. She rendered in English Gabriel García Márquez' Love in the Time of Cholera and The General in his Labyrinth, the historic novel about the final months of Simón Bolívar. In 1992, under the title Maqroll, she translated three novellas by Alvaro Mutis, a writer whose recent works have brought him several major prizes in Europe.

At present Grossman is a Professor of Spanish at Dominican College and an Adjunct Professor at New York University, where she teaches translation workshops to graduate students and from where she received her Ph.D. in 1972.

As a literary critic, Grossman is the author of the book The Antipoetry of Nicanor Parra and other studies of the works of writers such as García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Antonio Machado. The richest part of her work, however, has been in the area of literary translation, to which she has dedicated herself with impressive versatility since 1973. She has successfully worked in all genres, from novel to non-fiction. When asked about her own view on the art and craft of translation, she says: "It seems to me that literary translation is both an act of criticism and an act of creative writing. In many ways the translator penetrates the text more deeply than most critics and is constantly engaged in interpreting both the text and the sub-texts."

In the following interview, Grossman speaks about her experience as a translator and reflects on Alvaro Mutis and his main character, Maqroll.

MCS: How did you begin to translate?

EG: When I was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, I translated some of Juan Ramon Jimenez' poetry. These translations were published in the student literary journal. Then in the early 1970s, when Ronald Christ was editor of Review, he asked me to translate a piece by Macedonio Fernández for the magazine. He was extremely encouraging (something for which I will always be grateful) as I struggled through prose by the man who is probably the most eccentric writer in the history of the Spanish language. "The Surgery of Psychic Removal" turned out to be the first translation into English of any fiction by Macedonio, and it appeared in Review in 1973. Despite the mind-boggling quirks of Macedonio's writing, I found that I loved the work, and I've been translating ever since.Over the years it has come to occupy more and more of my time, which I don't regret in the least. I still love the work.

MCS: Do you believe in a theory of translation?

EG: I find some theories very interesting while others don't make much sense to me. When I began to teach the workshops, I realized that general rules cannot be applied in an invariable way. I think that solutions to the most interesting problems in translation ultimately depend on the translator's intuition. For example, if part of the meaning is likely to disappear in the translation, there are times when I prefer to add a few words that may not exist in the original in order to convey the full idea.

MCS: As in the case when García Márquez mentions "Santa Fe," the old name of Bogotá (which is actually its name again) in The General in his Labyrinth, and you translate it as "Santa Fe, the city of the Holy Faith"?

EG: Yes. In this way, the traditions implied in the name are conveyed. If I translate it simply as "Santa Fe," the American reader will associate it with Santa Fe, New Mexico.

MCS: What makes a book translatable?

EG: I'd like to rephrase that question. I can't say what makes a book translatable, but I do think that all texts can be translated.The question of whether or not a work is "translatable" stems from a mistaken and widely held notion that a translation is really a one-for-one set of equivalences with the original--a straightforward lexical problem--when in fact it is a rewriting of the first text. Some, of course, are immensely difficult (they're usually just as difficult in the original) and challenge the translator's sensitivity to nuance, levels of meaning, and artistic impact in both languages. I see my work as translating meaning, not words.

MCS: How do you deal with a word that has several different shades of meaning in the original language, as is frequently the case in Spanish?

EG: I study all the possible equivalences until I find the one that most faithfully transfers into English the idea intended in the original. It may take me a long time to find a term that really satisfies me. Sometimes after a long, frustrating search, I suddenly hear the word on the street. Right now I am working on García Márquez' Doce Cuentos Peregrinos. I still don't know how I will translate "peregrinos," since it has such a wide range of meanings.

MCS: You have translated texts for Amnesty International and also the works of Alvaro Mutis, who once declared that the last important political event was the fall of the Byzantine Empire. What should be the relationship between the author's ideology and the translator's ideology?

EG: The translator does not have to share the author's politics; neither does the critic.But he or she must be as open and sympathetic as possible in order to understand levels of meaning and transfer them into English.

MCS: Are you a writer, too?

EG: I have been a closet poet since I was a little girl.

MCS: Shy?

EG: There is some of that, yes. But now I think it's time to let my poetry out.

MCS: Where does literary translation stand in comparison with creative writing and criticism?Is there a fair recognition of translation?

EG: This question must be your present to me. I'll try to streamline my response, since I could go on about this topic for days.

It seems to me that literary translation is both an act of criticism and an act of creative writing. In many ways the translator penetrates the text more deeply than most critics and is constantly engaged in interpreting both the text and its subtexts. This is an integral part of the translator's obligation to recreate, in another language, the tone, sense, and impact of the original. In order to fulfill that obligation, literary translators must be sensitive writers in English--otherwise they run the risk of writing in "translatorese," the kind of misbegotten idiom that has no reality in any language.

As for the second part of the question, I believe that literary translation is grossly undervalued, both commercially and critically. For the most part, publishers do their best to pay translators as little as possible, although the book they actually publish depends on the translator's work. And most critics assiduously ignore the fact that they are reviewing a translation. If they do refer to the translation, they usually dismiss it with a phrase like "ably translated by..."

MCS: When you decide to translate a book, do you start by reading the existing criticism about it?

EG: Not at all. On the contrary, I prefer to rely on my own judgment or interpretation.

MCS: You have met Mutis and other authors of books you have translated.Is it inhibiting for you to know that they read your translations?

EG: No, I don't find it inhibiting to have the author read a translation. Most of the time it is helpful, since authors tend to be very generous in giving their translators unique insights into the real intention or significance of certain phrasings. This was certainly the case with Mutis.

MCS: How did you become acquainted with the works of Alvaro Mutis?

EG: I had read some of his poetry in the past. Then, when I was working on The General in his Labyrinth, John Coleman of New York University gave me a copy of El Ultimo Rostro, Mutis' story about a Polish nobleman who comes to join Bolívar in the war of independence but arrives too late. I was fascinated by the romanticism in the person of Napierski, the Polish soldier. The relationship between these two solitary heroes reminded me of Renoir's movie La Grande Illusion and the understanding that develops between a French officer and a German officer in the First World War. They share a past, a tradition that is gone forever and has nothing to do with nationality.

MCS: El Ultimo Rostro inspired García Márquez' The General in his Labyrinth, the novel about the Liberator's last months of life, which you translated. How do you compare the two works?

EG: That question requires a more complex answer than I'm prepared to give, but I think that the two characterizations of Bolívar are similar in their powerful view of his disillusionment and his inner tragedy. On the other hand, El Ultimo Rostro is a short narration while The General is a novel, and the degree of focus is necessarily different. I was fascinated by the enormous amount of research carried out by García Márquez and by his depiction of Manuela Sáenz, one of my favorite women.

MCS: Alvaro Mutis has been regarded as different from other Latin American writers.Do you agree with this?

EG: Yes, to a degree, although it would be difficult to specify how without an extensive stylistic analysis that would probably require another book--or at least a dissertation!In a very impressionistic way, I would say that I have a sense of Mutis as more European than most American authors, either North or South. If I were to specify antecedents--I mean the literary tradition where his greatest sympathies lie--I would think of Joseph Conrad or Graham Green or even John Le Carré, despite Mutis' brilliant descriptions and evocations of a Latin American landscape.

MCS: There are fantastic creatures in Mutis' work, but are they comparable to García Márquez' fantastic creatures, for example?

EG: No, I don't think so.There is no humor in Mutis' fantasy. In Ilona Comes with the Rain, a woman by the name of Larissa makes love with two ghosts who appear to her on successive nights. The relationship that she establishes with them is masochistic. In Cocora, Maqroll takes care of a mine where an abandoned machine obsesses him to the point that he views it as a kind of surrealistic monster. Maqroll suffers immensely, yet he stays at the mine without any apparent reason to do so. I think these creations don't necessarily have a rational explanation. They seem utterly mysterious to me.

MCS: How do you view Maqroll?

EG: Maqroll is a very attractive figure who at the same time inspires profound compassion. He sees life as a voyage, and what matters for him is the caravan and not its destination. One of the characters in The Snow of the Amiral says that he is immortal. I think it means that he lives in the present, not in the past or in the future (yet he is haunted by the past despite himself--and he escapes the present by reading history). In the three novellas, the only time we see him thinking about the future is when he says to Ilona that they should leave Panama because nothing happens there.

MCS: What makes him such an attractive character?

EG: Probably the fact that he has so much soul. I mean that Mutis depicts a profound character--in a sense, his greatest adventures are internal. Maqroll lives by perception, sensation, memory--his intellectual and emotional processes are really what constitute the adventure of his life (and the plot of each novella), and he seems to move through an inner landscape at least as spectacular and rugged as the outer one. He seems larger than life.

MCS: Reading the interviews with Mutis that have been published, on a couple of occasions I found that he says about his life what his characters say in the novels. Do you think that Mutis portrays himself in them? More specifically, could we identify Mutis and Maqroll?

EG: I'm old enough to have been influenced by "new criticism."I try to look at the characters as having their own identities, different from the author's. But, obviously, the feelings and thoughts of the authors are reflected in them. How, or to what extent, I couldn't say.

MCS: Did you develop any special techniques to translate Mutis' novels?

EG: No, I didn't. I did what I always attempt to do:to sharpen my sense of the tone of the language in Spanish and create a style in the translation that would allow the English reader to experience something equivalent to what Spanish language readers experienced when they read the book. Having said that, I should add that Mutis' literary language and style are particularly elegant and complex, and therefore the transposition to English was especially demanding.

MCS: You have never been in Colombia but have been able to re-create in English all the beauty of the tropical lands.

EG: It was not my doing. The writer re-created the tropic and the mountains. My job was to render the images in English as faithfully as possible.

MCS: Until about 1986, when he started writing his novels, Mutis was considered almost exclusively a poet. Do you think his novels are poetry?

EG: Yes, there is beauty in the words, in the imagery, but that's not all.In his novels, there is always a rhythm in the sentences. I find this rhythmic component highly poetic.

MCS:What is the importance of Mutis as a novelist at this moment?

EG: He is a brilliant writer and a masterful storyteller, and in Maqroll he has created a compelling character.In addition to all this, I found the Cervantine connection intriguing. (You should know that I tend to see most serious writers in Spanish as legitimate heirs of Cervantes.) In the case of Mutis, his narrative style (stories within stories) and the unusual device of using appendices struck me as an updated version of the interpolated tales in Don Quixote. I'm not at all sure he would agree.

MCS:Thank you very much for making this interview possible

EG: My pleasure. Being able to sit and talk about Mutis for this long has been like a holiday for me.

TRANSLATIONS BY EDITH GROSSMAN

Novels

Alvaro Mutis.Maqroll.Three Novellas.New York:HarperCollins, 1992.

Gabriel García Márquez.The General in his Labyrinth.New York:Knopf, 1990.

Gabriel García Márquez.Love in the Time of Cholera.New York:  Knopf, 1988.

Fernando del Paso.Excerpt from Palinuro de México.Review 28,(1981).

Manuel Scorza.Drums for Rancas.New York:Harper & Row, 1977.

Short Fiction

Stories by Quijada, Rivera, Rovinski, and Monterroso. In And WeSold the Rain. Contemporary Fiction from Central America.Ed.Rosario Santos. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1988.

Augusto Monterroso."The Brain Drain."The Massachussetts Review xxvii, nos. 3 & 4 (Fall-Winter, 1986).

Jorge Edwards."Griselda."Review 33 (September-December, 1984).

Guillermo Cabrera Infante."Morritz Ravelli's Left Foot Piano Concerto."Nimrod 26, no. 2 (Spring-Summer, 1983).

Antonio Skármeta."The Phone Call" and "Man with Carnation in his Mouth."Review 25-26 (1980).

Jorge Edwards."Experience."Fiction 5, nos. 2 & 3 (1978).  Reprinted in New Directions 46, 1983.

Gustavo Alvarez Gardeazábal."The Idiot Raffle."Review (Winter, 1976).

Julio Cortázar."Silvia."Fiction 4, no. 3 (1976).

Silvina Ocampo."Report on Heaven and Hell."Tri-Quarterly no. 35 (Winter, 1976).

Salvador Garmendia."Domestic Allusions,""Dead People and Flying Spirits," and "Test Flight."Review (Fall, 1975).  The first two stories reprinted in City 8, I, no. 8 (1980).

Macedonio Fernández."The Surgery of Psychic Removal."Review (Winter, 1973).

Poetry

Jaime Manrique."Memories."Queer City.The Portable Lower East Side, 1991.

Jaime Manrique."Barranco de Loba, 1929."Grand Street 40 X, no. 4 (1991).

Nicanor Parra and Roberto Echavarren.New Poems Review 42 (January-June, 1990).

Jaime Manrique.Selected poems.Scarecrow.New York:The Groundwater Press, 1990.

Jaime Manrique."My Father's Ghost in Two Landscapes."Arete. Forum for Thought (May-June, 1989).

Ariel Dorfman.Last Waltz in Santiago.New York:Viking Penguin, 1988.

José Kozer and Alejandro Oliveros.Selected poems.Review 34 (January-June, 1985).

Nicanor Parra.Selected poems.Nicanor Parra.Antipoems:New and Selected.Ed. David Unger. New York:New Directions, 1985.

Nicanor Parra.Selected poems.Translation XIV (Spring, 1985).

Macedonio Fernández.Selected poems.Macedonio.Selected Writings in Translation.Ed.Jo Anne Engelbert. Fort Worth:Latitudes Press, 1984.

Juan García Salazar."Black Poetry of Coastal Ecuador."Grassroots Development.Inter-American Foundation.8, no. 1 (1984).

Ariel Dorfman.Missing.London:Amnesty International, 1981.Excerpts appeared in The Village Voice and The Soho News; selections read at Montclair State College, with the poet, April, 1982.

Embry, Hahn, Memet, Polhammer, Rubio, and Silva Acevedo.Selected poems.Review 27 (1980).

Nicanor Parra."Sermons and Preaching of the Christ of Elqui."New Directions 41.New York:New Directions, 1980.

Essays

Mario Vargas Llosa."The Road to Barbarism."New York Times.April 12, 1992:op-ed page.

Octavio Paz."Time's Voice.Poetry, Myth, and Revolution."The New Republic 6 November 1989.

Enrique Krauze."The Guerrilla Dandy."The New Republic 27 June 1988.

Luis Rafael Sánchez."Don't Cry for Us, Puerto Rico."Foreword to The Political Status of Puerto Rico.Ed. Pamela Falk.Lexington:Lexington Books, 1986.

Mario Vargas Llosa."In Nicaragua."New York Times Magazine 28 April 1985.

Fernando Arrabal."Letter to Castro."Partisan ReviewXII, no. 2 (1985).

José Miguel Oviedo.Review of Octavio Paz.Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz;Emir Rodríguez Monegal.Review of the same book, both in Review 32 (January-May, 1984).

Jacobo Timerman."Return to Argentina."New York Times Magazine 11 March 1984.

Mario Vargas Llosa."A Passion for Peru."New York Times Magazine 20 November 1983.

Mario Vargas Llosa."Inquest in the Andes."New York Times Magazine 31 July 1983.

Volodia Teitelboim."Inheritance and Survival in Chilean Culture."Chile:A Report to the Freedom to Write Comittee, PEN American Center.New York:PEN American Center, 1980.

Hector Libertella."A Literary Hybrid."Review 23 (1978).

Waldo Rojas."A Generation's Response to The Dark Room."Review 23 (1978).

Non-fiction

José Luis Llovio.Insider.My Hidden Life as a Revolutionary in Cuba.New York:Bantam Books, 1988.

René Villarreal."The International Economic Crisis and the for the Nation."In Petroleum and Mexico's Future.
Ed. Pamela Falk.Boulder & London:Westview Press, 1987.

Roberto Segré, ed.Latin America in its Architecture.New York: Holmes & Meier, 1980.

Jean Michel Fossey.Interview with Severo Sarduy."From Boom to Big Bang."Review (Winter, 1974).

In progress

Revision of translations of short fiction by Augusto Monterroso.

Outline of a book on translating.

Translation of a novel-in-manuscript,"El cuero de Jim," by Roberto Echavarren.

Translation of poems by Etelvina Astrada, for Gas Station Editions.

In press

Translation of "Christopher Columbus:Reflections on his Deathbed (A Collage)," a long poem by Jaime Manrique.Awarded Honorable Mention in Latin American Writers Institute 1989 Translation Competition;(Vehicle Press; expected date of publication, Winter, 1992).

Translation of two poems, "Whiteness" and "Remorse," by José Kozer, and a short story, "Aunt Lila," by Daniel Moyano
(Tamaqua; expected date of publication, Winter, 1993).

Translation Review, Volume 41, 1993.