Bringing Spanish Literature to Life — in English

By Max Gross

Published January 23, 2004, issue of January 23, 2004.
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Edith Grossman has long played Sancho Panza to Gabriel García Márquez’s Don Quixote. For the past 15 years or so, Grossman has been Márquez’s translator — turning his magical-realist Colombian novels into straightforward, lyrical English.

Now Grossman is also Sancho Panza to the original Don Quixote.

Anyone who has browsed through their local Barnes & Noble or Borders in the last month has probably seen Grossman’s new translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s “Don Quixote” (Ecco). The bulky hardcover is dressed up in a glossy red jacket, complete with an introduction by Harold Bloom calling Cervantes one of Western literature’s three greatest writers, along with Dickens and Shakespeare. This new “Don Quixote” has been widely hailed by The New York Times, The New Yorker and dozens of other publications as a magnificent translation.

Who is this prominent translator of Spanish literature into English? The person behind these great authors is a Jewish woman from Philadelphia who lives on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

“A lot of translators are Jews,” Grossman told the Forward. She casually ticked off Jewish translators of Spanish and Latin American literature: Eliot Weinberger is the primary translator of the great Mexican poet, Octavio Paz; Suzanne Jill Levine has translated Jorge Luis Borges and Guillermo Cabrera Infante; Asa Zata was the translator of “Ballad of Another Time” by Jose Luis Gonzalez and Juan Alcazar.

Why the large numbers of Jews in translation? Call it the Jewish fascination with migrating to new lands and acclimating to new cultures. “Jews do that a lot,” Grossman said.

Grossman can list Jewish authors published in Spanish who have yet to be introduced to the English-speaking world, such as Marcelo Birmajer. She also can inveigh on different theories about Cervantes’s Jewish connection. (Some scholars believe he is descended from a family of conversos; Grossman explained that “many writers from 16th-century Spain came from converso families.”)

The 67-year old Grossman, a plainspoken woman with a mane of curly white hair, met a reporter for lunch at a restaurant near her apartment. Upon meeting her, the reporter remarked that he had only recently realized how much of her work he had read: the English versions of Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera,” “News of a Kidnapping” and “The General in his Labyrinth” are all Grossman translations.

Grossman chortled. “It’s the curse of the translator,” she remarked. “Nobody ever notices who you are.”

But with her new translation of “Don Quixote,” it will be hard to ignore Grossman’s contribution to the literary canon.

“I was nervous,” Grossman admitted. “There’s 400 years of scholarship behind that work — it was as if I was translating Shakespeare.” She breathed a great sigh of relief when she read novelist Carlos Fuentes’s review in the New York Times Book Review, calling the translation “a major literary achievement.”

Grossman came in contact with Spanish-language literature almost entirely by accident. She comes from a family of Eastern European Jews who settled in Philadelphia. (Grossman’s father was a shoe salesman, her mother a homemaker.) Enchanted by her high school Spanish teacher, Grossman began studying Spanish at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received bachelor’s and master’s degrees before earning her doctorate at New York University.

At 21, she began teaching Spanish literature at the University of Pennsylvania; she described herself as a tyrannical teacher’s assistant, “hardnosed and strict.” She recalled, “I was failing half the class [when] the professor said to me, ‘You know ‘D’ is a very bad grade; you don’t have to fail everybody.’”

Grossman won a Fulbright to study in Spain, but didn’t begin focusing on Latin American literature until she read the poetry of Chilean writer Pablo Neruda. “It was Neruda that moved me out of Spain,” she said.

Grossman was content, at first, to stay in academia. Working the circuit of state and local colleges, she began translating on the side.

Translation is not an easy way to support oneself. When she finally quit teaching in 1990 to focus all her efforts on translating, a friend of Grossman’s said to her, “You think you’re going to make a living as a translator?”

Plus, it can be taxing. As Grossman combs through Márquez’s originals, words crop up that she has never heard. She usually runs these words by her Colombian friends, sometimes more than one. In one instance, she called up a Colombian friend and asked him if he had ever heard of an unfamiliar word. “He said, ‘That’s a mountain word — I come from the coast.’”

When she was vetting “Living to Tell the Tale” — the first volume of Márquez’s memoirs, which Knopf published in late 2003 — she came across a word she did not know: granatorio. It was not in any dictionaries. Grossman asked another Colombian friend to find out if she had ever heard of the word in question. She had: Granatorio was a homeopathic scale for measuring powders, and it suddenly made sense — Márquez’s father was a pharmacist.

Grossman began translating Márquez in the late 1980s when she worked on “Love in the Time of Cholera,” and the two established an excellent rapport. She would fax proofs of her translations to his house in Mexico City and they would speak on the phone, but he rarely interfered with Grossman and her work. “His English is pretty good,” Grossman said. “Probably better than he lets on.” When Márquez visits New York, she meets him for coffee and drinks, maintaining their polite friendship.

But there is a certain distance between the writer and his translator. Grossman has never visited Márquez’s Colombian homeland. In fact, she has never been to South America at all, even though she has visited Central America and Spain. “The older I get, the less I enjoy traveling,” she said. Instead, Grossman is content with living in her apartment on the Upper West Side, which she and her husband have shared for 25 years. She is happy discussing her son Matt and stepson Kory — both musicians — and she is happy with her pleasant, peaceful routine of morning walks, good lunches and afternoons spent translating the literary masters.

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