Found in Translation: Literature in Other Languages
Posted on November 15, 2023
by Eric P
To the uninitiated, translating a book from one language to another may seem simple. You just swap one word for another over and over again until you get to the end – how complicated is that? Seems like something a computer could do.
But of course, it is vastly more complicated. For instance, here’s how the above paragraph reads after it’s been run through a computer’s translation program a few times:
For beginners, translating a book from one language to another can be hassle-free. Just change one word to another until the end. What is this complex problem? Obviously, a computer can do that.
Not bad, in terms of basic clarity – but you can’t really say it fully captured my voice. (And I’m overlooking the time the software freaked out and translated the passage as “More information. More information. More information. What is the answer? More information.” Chill out, HAL 9000.)
Translators of literature strive for accuracy, but that’s just the beginning. They have to translate dialogue into multiple characters’ vernaculars and mannerisms. They have to deal with idioms and jokes and tonal shifts and puns and literary tactics like rhyme and imagery and alliteration. Basically, they’ve got much the same job as the book’s original author, only even harder – the author got to make stuff up.
A translation needs to be expressive and creative, conveying not just the words but the spirit of the original text. But it also has to be invisible – so that their interpretive flair doesn’t get between the author and the reader. It’s a seemingly impossible task for a job that so often goes unsung when we talk about books.
Edith Grossman, a translator of Spanish-language literature into English who died recently, did much to change that. She was among the first translators to require publishers to put her name on the book cover alongside the author’s. She fought for translators to receive fair pay and for publishers to cast their nets more widely when choosing titles to translate into English. The attention she got for her books was a refreshing change for a profession that might otherwise be compared to air traffic controllers: you never think about their work, but you really kinda need for them to do it well.
Or as my computer translator might put it:
The attention he paid to his work was a refreshing change from an air traffic controller. You never think about your job, but you have to be good at it.
Grossman’s translation of Cervantes’ landmark 17th-century Spanish novel was one of the works that really put her on the map. All translations are challenging but this one was particularly ambitious: it’s a 900-page two-volume comic epic steeped in early-1600s vocabulary and references. Its main character thinks he’s in an elevated romantic adventure when really he’s in a coarse and slapstick cringe comedy, so nailing all the levels that are at work in this thing is really kind of the translator’s equivalent of a quadruple axel.
Grossman first got hired as the magical realist Garcia Marquez’s English translator by auditioning for him with twenty translated pages from this sprawling novel about love and fidelity in Colombia. It was good enough to get her the job, and she went on to become his preferred translator, producing English versions of seven of his novels. “You’re my voice in English,” the Nobel prizewinner told her. And when she took the Quixote job, he phoned her in the voice of a betrayed lover: “So I hear you’re two-timing me with Cervantes.”
Peruvian novelist Vargas Llosa has been publishing fiction since the 1960s, during which time he’s won the Nobel Prize and a few dozen other honors. This novel, an unflinching indictment of totalitarianism and corruption, came about forty years after his debut and was received by many readers as evidence of Vargas Llosa’s continued creative vitality. Grossman navigates the grotesqueries and the shifts in time and place in what the New York Times called a “crackling translation.”
Montero’s rollicking novel includes romance, violence, a dead hippopotamus and a one-armed circus performer. The Cuban-Puerto Rican author solicited Grossman to translate her work after another novelist called her the world’s best translator, and the partnership paid off – Grossman eventually translated six of Montero’s novels, and Montero said that reading her translations felt like she was looking at herself in a mirror. “I can still feel the rhythm,” Montero said. “The connection, the spirit of my own story, like a heart beating within the text.”
Others of the books Grossman has translated on this list have deployed elements of the thriller genre: suspense, violence, criminality. But Peruvian author Roncagliolo’s debut is the most straightforward appropriation of the crime procedural – complete with a serial killer – even though it also has other things on its mind. Religion, colonization, bureaucratic absurdity, corruption and official disinformation are just a few of those things. And Roncagliolo comes at it all with journalistic rigor and a sophisticated literary eye that gives his translator a complicated assignment; the Guardian’s review declared that “Edith Grossman’s versatile translation spans hard-boiled noir, punctilious legalese, and the illiterate scrawls of a would-be serial killer.”
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