Vladimir Nabokov famously defended a literal approach to translation, which he defined as “rendering, as closely as the associative and syntactical capacities of another language allow, the exact contextual meaning of the original.” His English translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin frustrated readers and critics when it was published, and it remains to this day a controversial version of the classic Russian text. “In translating its 5,500 lines into English,” Nabokov said, “I had to decide between rhyme and reason—and I chose reason.” He also chose to sacrifice, in the name of textual fidelity, many of the things that bring pleasure to the common reader: elegance, euphony, and clarity among them.
Edith Grossman, the acclaimed translator of Don Quixote, disagrees with this literal method of translation. In Why Translation Matters, she describes Nabokov’s version of Eugene Onegin as “practically unreadable.”* Though she, too, believes that the translator’s task is to capture the contextual meaning of the original, she does not think this is achieved by replicating the exact meaning of each and every word. In her experience, “the meaning of a passage can almost always be rendered faithfully in a second language, but its words, taken as separate entities, can almost never be.” A good translator is not a scholar sitting behind a stack of dictionaries, but an artist with a sense of style, an aptitude for analogy, a sensitivity for emotion and tone, and an ability to discern the connotations beneath the surface of a text.
Grossman’s passionate rejection of literalism is connected to her idea that a translation is not merely a copy of one text into a different language, but an original work of art. She quotes approvingly from a remark made by William Carlos Williams, in which the distinction between the translator and the original author is virtually eliminated. “The undeniable reality,” she writes, “is that the work becomes the translator’s (while simultaneously and mysteriously somehow remaining the work of the original author).” In this regard Grossman may be going a bit too far. It is one thing to celebrate the originality of a translation, but another to ignore the fact that a translation, by definition, will always be dependent on a pre-existing text.
Towards his critics, Nabokov was impatient, intolerant, and often ingeniously hostile. As far as he was concerned, the opponents of his approach to translation were amoral philistines. Grossman is not quite so contemptuous as this, but she certainly shares Nabokov’s belief that most critics are utterly unqualified to write about translated literature. A good portion of Why Translation Matters addresses this issue, and it does so convincingly. As Grossman points out—and as anyone who frequently reads book reviews has probably noticed—the average critic lacks the skills necessary to evaluate a translation. Not knowing any language but English (or whatever his native language happens to be), he largely ignores the fact that the work in question was translated. If he does acknowledge the translation, it is in a prefabricated statement or two: a simple endorsement or dismissal of the translator’s efforts. Readers, then, become accustomed to ignoring translators and to overlooking the significance and complexity of their craft.
The injustice of this is obvious when one considers how much we rely on translators, how intellectually impoverished we would be without them. As the predictable but useful thought experiment goes: Imagine if you could only read books originally written in the language or languages you understand. Even to a multilingual reader the consequences would be repugnant. “The deprivation would be indescribable,” Grossman writes. “The mere idea creates a prospect that is intolerably, inconceivably bleak.” Yet we give little thought to the men and women who keep this prospect from becoming a reality, and in doing so we perpetuate a frustrating paradox: translation is essential, yet translators are rarely treated as such.
Why Translation Matters is largely based on lectures Grossman delivered at Yale University in 2008, but the final chapter was written especially for this book and differs from the others in that it focuses exclusively on the translation of poetry. It also offers a glimpse of the translator at work, providing samples of poetry that Grossman has translated from Spanish into English. Here and elsewhere throughout the book she shows a spirited devotion to her craft and a passion for literature that is matched by a tremendous knowledge of it. Her prose is clear, concise, and refreshingly free from academic jargon. Readers may disagree with her opinions from time to time, but they will not have trouble understanding them.
Most readers who are drawn to this book will already know why translation matters. They might not know, however, just how little it seems to matter to other people. According to Grossman, statistics show that in the United States and the United Kingdom, only two to three percent of the books published each year are literary translations. In other countries this statistic is not so alarming—in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Latin America, Grossman says, it is between twenty-five and forty percent. She does not quite know how to account for this fact, but part of it, she thinks, may be due to the “high degree of xenophobia rampant in our country.”
Or perhaps it is due to something less extreme: convenience, for example, or practicality, or—damnable in its own right—indifference. It seems improbable that the common reader, publisher, or reviewer in the United States refrains from seeking out translated literature because of an outright hostility towards other cultures. A person with this sort of attitude is unlikely to be interested in any kind of serious book, whether it is translated or not. Grossman exaggerates the connection between the scarcity of translated literature and “the growth and spread of an increasingly intense jingoistic parochialism in our country—the kind of attitude that leads certain people who should know better to believe that their nation and their language are situated, by a kind of divine right, at the center of the universe.”
Grossman rightly points out that literary translation has been “undervalued by publishers, trivialized by the academic world, and practically ignored by reviewers.” But this assessment is a limited one, and it does not adequately describe the present state of translated literature. A broader evaluation is given by Susan Bernofsky and Esther Allen, the editors of a recent collection of essays on translation. They believe that in addition to the discouraging statistics regarding literary translation, there are many things to be hopeful about as well. “This new century has shown itself to be an age of translation,” they write, and in support of this assertion they provide the following evidence: the Internet has established new connections among diverse cultures and has made it possible for us to access and share content more efficiently than ever before; translators are now being given more respect as intellectuals; academics are more willing to treat translation as a form of scholarship; and there has been a recent flourishing of small presses devoted to translated literature, some of which have become very popular among younger readers.
But these considerations are beyond the scope of Grossman’s book, which is not intended to be a comprehensive study of translation. Why Translation Matters is a brief but compelling defense of literary translation by an exceptionally qualified translator. Grossman has translated works by Cervantes, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and other distinguished authors. Her knowledge and experience make her an ideal guide to the subject, which could easily become boring at the hands of a lesser writer. She is incisive, opinionated, and indignant; her ideas are stated clearly and unabashedly. Some of her claims are controversial, but not in ways that distract the reader or detract from Grossman’s purpose as a writer: to inspire people to think and talk about translation in new ways, “to stimulate a new consideration of an area of literature that is too often ignored, misunderstood, or misrepresented.”
* Nabokov would have found this complaint rather baffling, for it was never his intention to create a readable translation of Eugene Onegin. “Only a paraphrase ‘reads well,’” he wrote; “my translation does not; it is honest and clumsy, ponderous and slavishly faithful.”
A. M. Kaempf is the founding editor of The Northwest Review of Books. His work has also appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, and Full Stop.