An interview with Edith Grossman

Sarah Timmer Harvey

Photograph by Sarah Timmer Harvey

A vegan and a carnitarian walk into a seafood restaurant on the Upper West Side. This may sound like the setup for a joke at a downtown comedy club, but a classic New York-style seafood restaurant, complete with slow-spinning ceiling fans, mahogany wainscoting, and crisp white tablecloths, is where Edith Grossman wants to meet. Even though I am resolutely vegan, my excitement at the prospect of lunching with the renowned literary translator is so great, that I agree to meet Dr. Grossman in a restaurant that serves line-caught swordfish and platters of New Jersey clams. Grossman, as it turns out, doesn’t eat fish either, but has been a regular at this fish-focused establishment for well over fifteen years. The irony isn’t lost on her as she laughingly eschews the daily seafood specials in favor of a hamburger and fries. The food isn’t the point, she says—though the few dishes on the menu that don’t contain fish are very good. She knows the staff well; most greet her like an old friend. Some of them have been working here as long as Grossman has been a patron and remember when the place was serving seafood under a different name, in the same Upper West Side neighborhood where Grossman has lived and worked since 1978.

Having recently completed the spring semester teaching at Columbia, Grossman is, for the first time in a long time, entirely “at liberty.” Her most recent translations, The Neighborhood by Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa and The Valley of the Fallen by Spanish author and art historian Carlos Rojas were published in 2018 and Grossman admits she currently finds the prospect of lunching without work looming in the back of her mind “very attractive.”—an attitude which is perhaps understandable when you consider her phenomenal career. The recipient of numerous accolades, including the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, Grossman has also been awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Civil Merit by the King of Spain, Felipe VI, The Arts, and Letters Award in Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, The Queen Sofia Spanish Institute Translation Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In addition to Vargas Llosa and Rojas, she has translated the work of many prominent Spanish and Latin American writers including Gabriel García Marquez, Álvaro Mutis, Mayra Montero, Sor Inés de la Cruz, Carmen Laforet, and Julián Rios. Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes is widely considered a masterpiece, and her book on the cultural importance of the literary translator, Why Translation Matters, is a fixture on the reading lists of translation graduate programs throughout the United States. I first met Professor Grossman at Columbia University, where I spent a semester studying translation with her. Several years later, I find myself contemplating what a privilege it was to observe her immense intellect at work, to engage with her artistry, tenacity, and wit. As a translator, I am grateful for her trailblazing, and as a woman, I admire her staunch refusal to suffer fools or misogynists. At eighty-three, Grossman’s legendary charisma remains unequaled, and last month I was lucky enough to join her for lunch.
—Sarah Timmer Harvey, June 2019


You did not initially set out to become a literary translator and have written that reading Neruda’s Residencia en la Tierra “was a revelation that altered radically the professional direction” you followed and “changed the tenor” of your life.

Well Neruda is what got me into Latin American literature, I read Residencia en la Tierra, and it was extraordinary, it was astonishing, I had never read any poetry like that before, and I thought: I’m going to do this. I’m going to be a translator. I always thought I would be a critic and a teacher and, you know, write an occasional book review, but translation was work that I could do at home and it gave me a chance to write in a kind of protected way. I didn’t have to use that part of my mind and invent the subject that I was writing about because the subject was already there.

Did it click immediately for you, translation? Was it a seamless beginning?

The first thing I translated was by an Argentine writer named Macedonio Fernández, who was something of a mentor to Borges. He wrote a piece called The Surgery of Psychic Removal about extirpating portions of the brain. I had so much fun working on getting the tone, not to mention the vocabulary. I thought I’d much rather do this than sit in the library researching “important things.”

You have written about wanting to “hear” the original version of work you are translating as “profoundly as possible.” Over the years, have you developed any rituals when you begin a new translation? Do you always approach your work in the same way?

I’m not particularly methodical, and I don’t do anything the same way every time. But when I read, there is a place in my mind that reads along with me, so I hear the text as well as see it. That’s what I meant when I wrote that because I always hear that particular voice.

Is it your own voice?

It’s my voice. It happens when I read poems or very artful prose. I have a voice that “says” the poem as I simultaneously “see” the poem. 

You have translated some very old texts; for example, The Solitudes (Soledades) by Lúis de Góngora, which was written in 1613. Does that voice then come as easily? Does the fact that the author is no longer alive afford you more freedom and space to divine what you think the writer intended to say, in the vein of Borges, who reportedly instructed his translator to write not what he said but what he intended to say?

No, I don’t. I feel obliged to say in English what they said in Spanish whether it's an older or a 21st-century writer, though there will always be spaces you have to fill in because no two languages are perfect matches.

Are you familiar with the poet and translator Christian Hawkey? In the introduction to Ventrakl, his experimental translations of the work of Georg Trakl, he wrote that “reading the deceased is to reanimate their words, the between-voice is a ghost, a host.” Does this resonate with your experience of reading and translating older writings?

It makes me think of getting caught up in the shadow of the original text when you do a translation. In that sense, you are a ghost. And a host in the sense of a party, because you’re inviting readers to read someone they perhaps wouldn’t have before! [laughs]

You’re right. The act of translating is inviting readers to enter a space previously inaccessible to them, but I suppose I was thinking about it more in terms of having a connection with the deceased writer that went beyond the boundaries of the text, if both seeking and finding that might make translating easier?

Maybe not. That kind of connection could interfere with your perception of the text. If you see the author’s face and you hear the author’s voice, you may be not seeing the text.

Your translation of Solitudes was published by Penguin in 2011. At the time, you said that you were more excited about the publication of this than any other project because you had wanted to translate it since your graduate studies. Was the experience of translating de Góngora what you had expected?

I think it was better! The text is so wonderful, and he was such a great poet, that the challenge of bringing that poetry into English was better than anything I could have imagined. De Góngora is an exquisite poet. The language is gorgeous. Above and beyond the impact of each individual word, the lines are their own entities—which also made it damn difficult to translate.

Right, and there aren’t so many other translations of de Góngora to cross-reference—not in English in any case.

I wouldn’t know about the others. The truth is I have never looked at other translations when I am translating anything. Never. I don’t want to contaminate my ear. I want to hear the original to the best of my ability and work only with that. I sometimes look at other translations afterward, but never before or during.

Have you ever looked at someone else’s translation after you have finished yours and discovered an interpretation that is wildly different from your own?

How egomaniacal would you like me to be?

Go for it, you’ve more than earned it!

I sometimes look at other people’s translations and think: “What the hell were you thinking?” I usually like my translations better. There, I’ve said it!

Are you good with criticism?

I don’t take criticism very gracefully on the inside. Outside I’m fine, but I don’t like to be criticized at all.

Have you ever been radically opposed to some changes that an editor has wanted to make?

All my editors have been great. I don’t know if I scare them or…

Surely not; you might charm them, but I don’t know if you would scare them!

Well, either way, they wouldn’t presume to make a change without consulting me! [laughs]

One of the things I want to talk about, and what I love about a lot of your work is your skill with translating humor and satire. That sense of playfulness is often so palpable in your translations. I wonder if that is something you have consciously developed over time? For example, you have mentioned that when you initially read Don Quixote as a teenager, you found it quite a tragic book and it was only once you were older and more experienced that you were able to see and appreciate the humor.

That’s true. I’ve read Don Quixote I don’t know how many times. When I first started reading it, I was a teenager in high school, and Don Quixote’s suffering and the way the world went after him struck me as verging on the tragic; it was just dreadful. As I got older and my sensibilities were worn away after having lived for so long, I found it insanely funny. I think that’s one of the reasons that many people find it such a great book, it’s that it contains all of that: a glut of humor and real deep tragedy. 

Absolutely, but I do think that for a lot of translators, comedy and satire are the hardest things to interpret. The Belgian academic Jeroen Vandaele suggests that this is because “a comical source text may contain (clashes between) registers, dialects, sociolects and idiolects which have no straightforward equivalent in the target language” which in turn might push the translator into a position where they are forced to deviate from a more “faithful” translation which, Vandaele claims, puts “considerable pressure on the translator and often leads to pessimism.” Have you ever felt that particular kind of pessimism?

No. That’s the challenge of doing translation. You’re dealing with multiple dictions and multiple tonalities at the same time and bringing them over into English. That is the work and English is by no means a primitive language. Whatever can be achieved in one language can usually be achieved in English.

But you are particularly skilled at translating humor. If I think of Augusto Monterroso’s incredible stories, which have you also translated, your translation is uproariously funny. You didn’t miss a beat of Monterroso’s wit—more than that, your translations seem to revel in it. How do you allow yourself the space to play so effectively with humor and satire?

I think these elements are part of my nature. You were in my class. I’m not a somber person. I have a satirical bent to my character. I see the ludicrous in lots of elements.

Your sense of humor is certainly well-recognized and appreciated. I understand that on your 80th birthday, the PEN translation committee threw you quite the shindig, and a lot of your friends and peers and colleagues were invited to contribute some words in tribute to you and your career. Many of them spoke of the brilliance of your translations, your remarkable passion for your work, and your warm demeanor but there were also a lot of references to your infamous wit.

They all were beyond kind.

They were indeed. So many of the tributes made me laugh and nod my head in agreement with what was written, but I admit I was particularly intrigued by the words of Jonathan Galassi, the President and then Publisher at Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, who wrote of you:

I have always admired the vitality and passion for literature that lie at the heart of Edie Grossman’s approach to translating. You can see it in the vividness and fidelity of her work. Edie is not a professional, though she is consummately serious about what she does. She is an amateur in the original sense: she loves what she does, and we are all the beneficiaries of her no-holds-barred commitment to her calling.

I wanted to ask you what you think Galassi meant by “amateur in the original sense?”

When I first read that, the first few words of that sentence, I said: “What?!” And I got very annoyed, but then I read on and thought if he wants to play this game with “amateur” as “lover of something”—which is what I suppose amateur essentially means. What he said was flattering in the long run, but the word “amateur” is so charged.

It is an interesting word to use given that you were eighty and not at the beginning of your career, but arguably at your zenith, your life and body of work were being honored by the PEN Translation Committee. I would call you a professional at the very least! But what’s most important is your perception of yourself. How do you wish to be seen?

I want to be seen as a professional who loves what she does. That’s much better than being described as an amateur!

Has your gender had an impact on the way people view your work throughout your career?

I am sure it has. It certainly did back in graduate school. It was very tough back in the day, being a female graduate student. I had a professor who once said to me: “you know you’re taking the space of somebody who’s going to go on in the field, and you’re just going to get married and have kids.” I really got pissed. I told him: “You have no way of knowing what I am going to do.”

I think there’s less now that type is a little too embarrassed that the social pressure is on to keep that kind of misogynistic remark under wraps.

And in writing?

There are differences. Certainly, women are treated very differently in older literature than they are now, which is good. And the treatment of minority groups has changed. All too often, older writers plugged into the prejudices of society. And it’s very, very hard to translate those texts.

Can we talk politics?

As long as you didn’t vote Trump.

I’m not an American citizen. I can’t vote.

Right. Then we can talk about it!

You have translated many Latin American writers; several of them were writing in exile and using their fiction to interrogate the social and political landscapes of their homelands and the region, and I wonder if any of them have altered your own views?

I don’t think so. I am what’s known as an old lefty, and nothing I have read or translated has changed my mind about that.

But your visibility as a translator has changed. I notice in your most recent publications that it has become more usual for you to contribute a translator’s note at the end of a book, in addition to being given a biography of equal length to the author’s. This is an enormous departure from your early years in translation. If I’m not mistaken, it took you quite some years to even get your name on the cover of any of the books you had translated.

It was a struggle. My late lawyer, Neal Gatcher, was a very feisty guy. I loved him dearly. Early on, he asked me: “Why isn’t your name on the cover?” I told him: “because translator’s names don’t go on the covers of books,” to which he replied: “well they’re going to be on there from now on.” And he started to push publishers to get my name on the covers of the book.

How did that make you feel? Uncomfortable? Excited?

Both. First uncomfortable, and then, delighted. I thought: It’s bloody well about time that the translator not be treated as a poor relation, that the translator is treated as an equal partner in the enterprise.

Were you one of the first?

I think I was the first. And it was because of him. After that, it became standard practice. The translators' name, I think, goes on the cover most of the time, now doesn’t it?

Most of the time. And there are now a few readers and people in the literary community who will get riled up if the translator isn’t named on a book cover or mentioned in a review of a translated book.

Yes! The reviewers used to write as though translation had appeared through kind of a divine miracle. An immaculate conception!

As though the writer coughed a few times and lo and behold, a perfect translation of their novel into another language.

That’s very funny! [laughs]

Do you ever translate purely for pleasure?

No. My father was a union organizer, and I am committed to the fact that you get paid for work, no matter how much you enjoy the work. Unless you choose to contribute to the work of a particular cause, you have to get paid for it.

Let’s talk about the future. Now that you have realized your long-held ambition to translate de Góngora, are there any other writers you are itching to translate?

Staying in the same realm, I would love to translate Francisco de Quevedo, who was a contemporary of De Góngora—they were actually terrible enemies. I think Quevedo had the sharpest, nastiest mind in seventeenth-century Spain. He made fun of everyone but also wrote the most wonderful sonnets. I would love to translate Quevedo, but he has already been translated a lot. He wrote a popular picaresque novel called El Buscón.

Now that you are at liberty, do you also feel free to pursue and suggest to publishers new projects that interest you?

I guess I’ve reached an age which the Italians call il dolce far niente—How sweet it is to do nothing. Sitting here and talking to you, for example, not having in the back of my mind that I’d better get back because some translation is waiting for me and I need to do ten more pages before the end of the day—it’s very liberating.