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Edith Grossman Tells it Like it Is [We Are So Small]

Over at Publishing Perspectives, there’s a profile piece by Hernán Iglesias Illa on Edith Grossman, translator extraordinaire and author of Why Translation Matters. (Which I wrote about at length for Quarterly Conversation back when it came out.)

Let’s start with an interesting part about Grossman’s recent translation of Don Quixote:

Grossman fell in love with Spanish as a teenager, thanks to a Spanish teacher “who was very good.” She read Don Quixote for for the first time in Philadelphia, where she grew up, in Samuel Putnam’s classic 1949 translation.

The half-century gap between Putnam’s version and hers can be seen from the very first sentence of the book. Putnam translates the legendary beginning of Cervantes (“En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme”) as: “In a village of La Mancha the name of which I have no desire to recall.” It’s an accurate translation, but somewhat clumsy, and that feels a bit dated. Grossman, less forced to follow the literality of the sentence and with an ear more attuned to capture Cervantes’ intention, writes: “Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember”.

This “I do not care,” disdainful and conversational, reflects much better the mocking spirit of Don Quixote’s narrator, who from the first sentence introduces himself as an unreliable guy.

Is all these subtlety worthwhile? For Grossman, there is no doubt. “The importance of translation is self-evident,” she writes in her book. Maybe that’s why she feels bad about her battered professional colleagues, “poorly paid and with no job security.” She describes most of them as people “who do not look for fame or fortune but do their work out of love for literature.“

She sure is direct . . . and honest. Which can result in some rather discouraging statements, such as this:

In her book, Grossman mentions the well-known fact that only three percent of the books published in the United States, Great Britain and Australia are translations, while in Europe and Latin America this percentage number fluctuates between 25% and 40%. “We English-speakers are not interested in translations,” says Grossman. (An interviewer infected with translators’ jargon would have commented that Grossman said this “with a sigh”, or “shaking her head.“) “I don’t believe that this will change soon, since almost all publishers are part of large corporations and make their decisions under enormous pressure to be profitable.”

I mention then that a few small and medium US publishers have recently published translations of books by César Aria, Alejandro Zambra and Juan José Saer. “I love these publishers, and they have good people working there,” she says. “But they are too small, they have a lot of trouble getting adequate distribution and good publicity or reviews in the media.”

Well, OK. I was going to complain here about how difficult it is getting books into bookstores where the buyers won’t even take a call because “that sort of stuff doesn’t sell here on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.” (Or in Nebraska, the Mountain & Plains states, or wherever.) And I was going to point out that Juan Jose Saer’s Sixty-Five Years of Washington sold out its first print run and was reviewed in the New York Times and The Nation among other places. But whatever. She’s right.1 Even at our best, the lousiest piece from crap from Corporate Publisher X will get more penetration into the marketplace, which is the slow sick sucking part of the business, and I’m not sure it will ever really change.

Obviously, Internet retailers have leveled the field a bit—all of our books are just as available through Amazon as anyone else’s—but in that case, when a reader is faced with an overwhelming number of choices (approx. 3 million new ones each year, including tons and tons of $.99 entertainments), it’s tricky for an unknown author from Peru to make it through. Ideally, when everything’s available, people would try new things and find some niche tastes, but in reality, we search for what we already know we want to find, and bust the Bieber while reading Twilight. But that’s a subject for another post and/or book . . .

Anyway, Edie definitely calls it like she sees it, and although I have to be more optimistic than she is (otherwise, this whole thing—getting up in the morning, working at a small press, writing this blog—seems pretty damn bleak), it’s true that our impact is at least partially handcuffed by economic realities.

All that said, I’ve been reading the new Saer book, Scars, and am BLOWN AWAY. Everyone needs to buy this—it’s absolutely incredible and the most compelling book I’ve read in a while. Not to overstate the point, but it reminds me why reading matters.

1 At least about Open Letter. I think the presses distributed by Norton—Dalkey Archive and New Directions—and the ones distributed by Random House and Penguin—Europa Editions, NYRB, Melville House—do get into almost all the locations they need to.



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