Why Translation Matters – Review

**Before beginning my review, I want to take a moment and thank my fellow blogger Silvia Cachia for the recommendation. You can read her blog by clicking this hyperlink**

Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman

Published in 2010

Pages: 160

Genre: Nonfiction, academic, language

“The vast, constantly expanding sea of contemporary literature can easily swamp any reader interested in keeping abreast of new works and new writers.”

Why Translation Matters, by Edith Grossman, is less of a book and more of an extended argument in defense of the practice and necessity of translating literature. Comprised of three essays and an introduction that gives context as to who Grossman is, Why Translation Matters is part of a series, created by Yale University, that asks experts to explain the intricacies and necessities of their fields. Debunking misconceptions and demonstrating the difficulty of her profession, Grossman creates a compelling thesis that will convince her reader to view translated pieces from a far more enlightened perspective.

I would be remiss if I didn’t begin by saying this since Grossman hones in on it so vehemently: translators are writers; doubly so because they must be aware of the affect of words in more than one language. People often discount the importance of translation; Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, for example, learned the craft of writing fiction from reading translated texts of literature.

Moving on from the importance of translation, Grossman jumps at the chance to lay into critics and the publishing industries of the United Kingdom and the United States of America. She is understandably aggravated since critics barely mention the translator and if it is brought up they only talk about accuracy; Grossman wonders how they can gauge that since they can’t read the language of the original.

Part 1: Authors, Translators, and Readers today

Grossman begins Part 1 by posing a question: with so many books published in English each year, why add more by publishing translations? This is especially difficult in a country that acts as if its primary language is sanctified. Though, this problem also extends to relationship between the U.K. and the U.S; English publishers will often anglicize (or is it anglicise?) spelling, and their erstwhile cousins in the states won’t publish some books for being “too British.” She also details how NOT to review a translation; the reader must keep in mind that they are reading both the original author and the translator.

A disappointing, if not surprising, statistic Grossman shares is that 50% of all translated literature is translated from English into other languages, while only 6% is translated from other languages into English. She argues that publishers should focus on putting out more translations, especially those of Muslim and Arabic texts. She highlights the irony that in this modern age, despite the fact that we trade and deal with one another, we don’t seek to understand countries and cultures that differ from our own.

Part 2: Translating Cervantes

Part 2 brings the idea of fidelity in translation and its absurdity into question. It wasn’t until after the Renaissance that translations were put under the scrutiny of fidelity; they were simply seen as necessary and the issue wasn’t worthy of mention, let alone criticism. Grossman states that, as a translator of literature, one must choose fidelity over literalism; this means remaining true to the emotions and sentiment that the work evokes rather than trying to translate word for word. Translators must be faithful to the context of the work, not the words used. She also argues that all authors translate from the ideas in their minds to the written word on paper.

The title of Part 2 comes from her experience after being tasked with translating Don Quixote, despite her expertise being in contemporary Latin American literature. She compares the task to trying to translate Shakespeare into Spanish, and shares the multitude of decisions that went into how she would translate the text.

Part 3: Translating Poetry

In the final part of Why Translation Matters, Grossman gives some background as to why, though she does enjoy translating poetry, she doesn’t do it professionally (hint: for the little money there is to be made in translating literature, there is even less in poetry). She argues that syntax may need to be altered “drastically,” but the intention should remain the same. Grossman also discusses the difficulty of translating from Spanish to English because of the difference in their use of rhythm and syllables.  Appropriately, the book ends with a poem that addresses translation and is written in both English and Spanish.

Why Translation Matters is relatively short; only 119 of the total 160 pages are dedicated to the essays which are followed by a list of translations and works cited. Her bias does rear its head in places, but the entire point of the book is an argument for taking translation more seriously, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise and is actually appropriate to the content.

I went back and reread my review of Love in the Time of Cholera which, coincidentally enough, was Grossman’s translation. I breathed a sigh of relief after discovering I didn’t fall into the same condescending tone as the critics she lambastes in Why Translation Matters, but there is definitely more I could have done to address the translation. I also neglected to even mention the translator in my reviews of The Prince and Gods and Heroes; I will endeavor to remedy this in the future. I want to once again thank Silvia Cachia for the recommendation; this book has changed the way I will read and enjoy translations of literature knowing that I have gained more from the translation than anything that could have possibly been lost.

Verdict: 4 enlightening essays out of 5

Recommended for: The academically inclined, anyone who has ever read translated texts, critics who read translated texts, anyone interested in learning more about what goes into translating literature, and those who enjoy learning from an expert in their field.

Not recommended for: The academically disinclined, monoglots, people who don’t see the point in reading literature outside the single language they speak fluently, the apathetic, or those who don’t enjoy learning.

11 thoughts on “Why Translation Matters – Review

  1. I don’t always pay attention to who the translator of a book is either, unless it’s one of Haruki Murakami’s books. Each of his translators has their own way of interpreting the Japanese in English. I know who my favourite translation of Crime and Punishment is by, too.

    I was inspired by your post to tot up how many translated books I’ve read. 25% of my LibraryThing total is made up of works in translation. I like to read books written by authors from countries I’m interested in. The world’s too full of amazing stories to limit myself to one cultural tradition!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it is definitely something we overlook as English readers since we don’t necessarily take into account that a translated text has been through the filter of another language. I am actually reading a book right now that has three parts with three different translators and it is astounding the difference that is made just in the language that is used.

      I definitely agree that we should seek out more literature from other cultures and languages, as Grossman argues, with the aim to better understand our fellow human beings. Thank you for reading and I’m glad my post could make you think about translation more!


  2. As a student (not master) of a few languages, I love this post. Sometimes I’m frustrated by translators who take too much liberty and insert themselves into an author’s text. I like the balance Grossman tries to strike and on the strength of your review, will look for her book.

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. I enjoyed your blog, and am feeling somewhat chastised, perhaps? I have read little (as in almost none) in the way of translated books and have paid no attention, truly to the translator. Most of the books I’ve read have been considered classics like Don Quixote, The Divine Comedy, The Iliad and the Odyssey. . .and alas, looking at these and thinking of others I’ve read, they have mostly been poems, albeit long ones!

    I think, nay, I know, I’ve let myself fall into the habit of focusing on primarily one genre, and not necessarily one that I enjoy, i.e., Christian romance, though, obviously I don’t loathe it! (In fairness to myself, those tend to be the books I get the most requests from authors to review.)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think we as readers are inherently unaware of translations because of the little importance that is put into them by the general reading and publishing communities. That is effectively what Grossman argues most in her book; we haven’t been aware simply because we were never made to be by the industries that create the books we read. Unless one is in the field or reading a book in another language, we really don’t find it merits consideration. Please don’t feel chastised; at least you are now aware and maybe you will pick up something you wouldn’t have before because of it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think what you say is very true! I appreciate your bringing the subject to light.
        I am now so intrigued by the idea that, I believe, I will go by the library this weekend to see what I can find!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. ESP xtruck

    Interesting article and blog, following now.
    On this topic I am of the view that storytelling can be translated without losing original language beauty, it’s poetry and the poetic style of the storytellers that gets lost when translated to another language.
    There is no solution though, what the translator can do for the untranslatable parts is present it in original language and a transliteration along with grammar used. But it’s too much effort

    Liked by 1 person

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