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the Complete Review
the complete review - translation

Why Translation Matters

Edith Grossman

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To purchase Why Translation Matters

Title: Why Translation Matters
Author: Edith Grossman
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 124 pages
Availability: Why Translation Matters - US
Why Translation Matters - UK
Why Translation Matters - Canada
  • Includes 'A Personal List of Important Translations'

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Our Assessment:

B : certainly passionate, but the chip on her shoulder gets in the way

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 24/4/2010 Julie Rose
Globe & Mail . 3/5/2010 Bernard Kelly
The New York Review of Books . 15/7/2010 Tim Parks
The NY Times Book Rev. . 11/4/2010 Richard Howard
The Quarterly Conversation . 26/4/2010 Chad Post
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Summer/2010 Rhett McNeil
The Smart Set . 4/3/2010 Jessa Crispin
Sunday Times . 25/4/2010 Edward King
The Telegraph . 15/5/2010 Michael Hofmann

  From the Reviews:
  • "Why Translation Matters should be required reading for publishers the world over, with heavy emphasis on the anglophone world where, as Grossman points out, the overall percentage of translations published is pitiful (.....) No one has argued the case more persuasively. Yet, as Grossman says, the fact of needing to argue the case at all is bizarre." - Julie Rose, The Australian

  • "Grossman's approach is non-theoretical, as she ranges discursively over the usual concerns raised by (chiefly literary) translation. (...) Her role, she believes, is to discover and interpret what that is, to unravel its "esthetic mysteries." A high calling, some would say, possibly (forgive me) quixotic. On the evidence of this flawed, ultimately disarming little book, however, Grossman appears to be up for the task, as does translation itself." - Bernard Kelly, Globe & Mail

  • "Grossman is at her best when she focuses on the special blend of skills and experience required to translate and least helpful when she bemoans the inability of reviewers to comment intelligently on translations." - Tim Parks, The New York Review of Books

  • "Grossman is at her eloquent best not when she makes plaintive, resentful demands that the "bloated international conglomerates" owning the major publishing houses face up to their responsibility to foster literature in translation, but rather when she reveals her joy in her work and her true inspiration" - Richard Howard, The New York Times Book Review

  • "These pieces capture Grossmanís penchant for talking, for sharing her passion, and as talks, I bet they were spectacular. On the page, they donít work quite as well, with the repetitions slowing things down and the meandering style taking away from her main points. But this is a pretty mild criticism. Though the individual pieces could be tighter (just compare them to "Translating Poetry," which was written exclusively for this collection), theyíre enjoyable and informative. (...) Thatís why parts of Why Translation Matters feel a bit misguided. Itís not that Grossman is wrong in her critique so much that rather than rail against all the injustices of the book industry, we should instead focus on putting readers at the center of this discussion." - Chad Post, The Quarterly Conversation

  • "Why Translation Matters is a near-exhaustive description of the enterprise of literary translation, a catalogue of the crucial role played by literary translators and the often-misunderstood works of art that they produce." - Rhett McNeil, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "With this book, Grossman had an opportunity to educate and enlighten her audience on how to engage with works in translation, how to think and write about them as well. Instead, she becomes a nag. She is not wrong in her complaints -- translation should be more respected, readers should be better educated and interested in foreign literature. But instead of engaging with reality, she's essentially complaining that the world is not perfect." - Jessa Crispin, The Smart Set

  • "In this slim but powerful volume, Edith Grossman argues that translation performs a function that is too often ignored or misunderstood." - Edward King, Sunday Times

  • "Edith Grossman keeps a resolutely medium-range focus, when I think either a more minute scrutiny or a broader perspective would have been more rewarding, certainly for the reader. (...) It is on the rare occasions that she gets down to brass tacks that the air of study and impersonal sweat lifts" - Michael Hofmann, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Why Translation Matters is based on three talks Edith Grossman gave at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale in 2008, with an additional chapter on 'Translating Poetry' added for this volume. The Introduction and the first two chapters have that somewhat informal feel of oral argument, while the third chapter, which includes several poem-examples, is a more obviously written text.
       Why Translation Matters is part of a series from Yale University Press, Why X Matters -- hence the title. Otherwise one might wonder: isn't it obvious ? But perhaps it's not entirely obvious, and Grossman is probably right to make even the obvious point -- that, given how many languages are otherwise inaccessible to us (and hence how many literary works in those languages would otherwise remain inaccessible), translation is practically a necessity, and one that opens new worlds to us.
       Grossman fleshes this out a bit, noting, for example, William Faulkner's tremendous influence on Latin American fiction, and suggesting:

Translation is, in fact, a powerful, pervasive force that broadens and deepens a writer's perception of style, technique, and structure by allowing him or her to enter literary worlds not necessarily found in one national or linguistic tradition.
       Unfortunately, here as elsewhere, Grossman sticks to relatively easy generalizations, and doesn't dig deeper. She doesn't consider, for example, how much of those 'literary worlds' is lost in translation, as translators (or their editors and publishers) adapt them to the literary tradition their customers (i.e. readers) are familiar with, lessening the possible impact of the texts (though admittedly the argument can be made that by broadening the appeal of the text -- as a more 'reader-friendly' translation might -- and hence increasing its circulation, the influence may, in fact, be greater, even if it is also slightly more shallow). Grossman also doesn't explore the difference between writers who themselves are translators -- i.e. really engage with the text (as she proudly notes translators do) -- and those who merely consume translations, a curious omission since it may hold part of the explanation for more general American and British attitudes towards translations (attitudes she does harp on, at considerable length), as it is common in most other languages for leading authors also to be active translators, while in the US and UK very few prose-writers try their hand at translation (though far more poets do).
       Yes: point made, point taken, exposure to foreign literature in some form expands (literary) horizons, of readers and writers alike, and the writing from one culture/language can have profound effects on another, and the world becomes a better place ..... But there is more to it than that -- or at least more worth exploring. Grossman, however, is more interested in addressing the fact that in the US and UK -- in English, for that matter -- translation seems to have such a hard time: the publishers don't want to publish the stuff, readers are scared of it, and reviewers ... oh, don't get her started on the reviewers ......
       On the one hand, this is rather entertaining stuff, and the reminder of how little foreign literature is translated into English is always a useful and sobering one. On the other hand: so what ? Not that it isn't an issue, mind you -- but Grossman doesn't wonder very hard about why things are the way they are (in the US and UK). She offers (shocking-amusing) examples, and leaves it pretty much at that: the irrational world that doesn't see, as she does, that translations (and translators) are so obviously good apparently can't be reasoned with. Which isn't particularly helpful.
       Quite possibly the publishing world can't be reasoned with -- like Grossman, I find it (and the reasoning behind many of the ostensibly 'business'-based decisions publishers make) utterly baffling --, but any book that rails against the current way of doing things (Grossman's examples include "a senior editor at a prestigious house" who told her that "he could not even consider taking on another translation since he already had two on his list") has to take a bit of a closer look at why they might be this way -- and what correctives might exist.
       Grossman also takes a nice, broad swipe at reviewers -- they: "seem to care about translation even less than publishers do" she finds. Here she sums up:
I do regret very sincerely that so few of them have devised an intelligent way to review both the original and its translation within the space limitations imposed by the publication. It seems to me that their inability to do so is a product of intransigent dilettantism and tenacious amateurism, the menacing two-headed monster that runs rampant through the inhospitable landscape peopled by those who write reviews.
       But what exactly does she want and hope for ? Certainly not the nit-picking citing of specific mistakes in the text -- "a useless enterprise that enlightens no one". And in a 500 or 1000-word review, how much room can and should be devoted to the translation-aspect ? And what, specifically, is it that readers should (and want to know) about the translation-aspect ? (Indeed, much of her argument in Why Translation Matters is that a translation is, in fact, to be differentiated from the original, a separate work that is as much the translator's as it is the author's -- in which case shouldn't readers (and reviewers) simply be concerned with how the text stands now, ignoring what it is based on ?)
       Grossman does single out one reviewer for praise, finding that James Wood "consistently pays attention to the real value of translation, bringing into focus the question of how books under review are translated and what priorities seem to guide translators in their choices". Wood hardly seems the best example -- as best I can tell, he overwhelmingly focuses his review-attention on books originally written in English -- but the one example she cites, his discussion (The New Yorker, 26 November 2007) of War and Peace, specifically the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation, certainly does admirably deal with translation-issues. It's worth pointing out a few facts about the piece however: first, Wood has space for 5775 words at his disposal: that's about the length of one of the chapters in Grossman's book, and many times more than any newspaper-review. [By comparison: this review runs just about half that, at 2900 words.] Of course Wood can get into translation-issues when he has so much room to work with; and, indeed, most reviews of translated works that get such essay-length treatment in serious periodicals also deal with translation-issues.
       More importantly: Wood is dealing with a work that has been translated before, which makes for particularly fertile discussion-foundation (and, in this case, translation is part of the larger point, as Wood makes a case for what is preferable about this translation over previous ones -- not something usually up for debate with most translated works, where there are no alternative-versions): it's no surprise that even here at the complete review, the reviews that focus most extensively on translation-issues are those of works available in multiple translations. (Interestingly, Grossman doesn't have much to say about the critical treatment of her Don Quixote-translation, much of which also drew comparisons to previous translations -- and hence dealt with the translation-questions at great length.) But this comparative approach also leads to the sort of ... if not nit-picking then at least word-focussed criticism that Grossman doesn't seem to find all the appealing (though in cases such as this seems both useful and interesting). So, for example, Wood writes:
Tolstoy surely wants the word "juicy" to take the weight of Andreiís renewed optimism; if the passage is written in a loose, free indirect style, we should feel Andrei coming back to this word in his half-articulated thoughts, feel the sap flowing, slowly, then faster, through his veins. "Sappy" is, indeed, the word that Constance Garnett uses to translate the Russian sochnye [сочные], and, unusually for her, she uses the same word three times, like Tolstoy. The Maudes use "sappy," too, but drop the third iteration, as if it were slightly embarrassing. Anthony Briggs, in his 2005 translation, renders the word as "lush," uses it twice, and then substitutes "succulent." "Juicy" is a precise translation of the Russian; but the striking comparison is between the rhythm of Pevear and Volokhonsky and the rhythm of the other translators.
       (That's 136 words right there -- and far from all that Wood has to say on the matter --: there's simply not room for this sort of thing in most reviews.)
       Grossman notes that there are some who shy away from reviewing translation at all (though she doesn't mention the currently most notoriously shy, The New York Times Book Review under Sam Tanenhaus ...), quoting, for example, from Benjamin Schwarz's explanation of Why we review the books we do in The Atlantic Monthly where he (lamely) explains why they "run fewer pieces on translated works than do comparable book-review sections". (In an irony not noted by Grossman -- as should be clear by now, she's very selective in the presentation of her material --, that note ran in the very issue which includes a 4210-word (!) review of her translation of Don Quixote .....) Another example she could have cited is that of Martin Amis, who famously avoids (or avoided, in his book-reviewing days) works in translation. As he wrote in one review (reprinted in The War against Cliché):
Surely, one reads even the foreign classics in translation as a guilty duty, to get some blotched silhouette, as one might look at snapshots of inaccessible paintings.
       Grossman at least takes a few stabs at why reviewers might be unwilling and/or unable to properly (i.e. to her liking) address translation in their reviews (including the interesting one that there is simply still "missing critical vocabulary" to deal with it), but the fundamental hurdle of how to treat the text -- as a version of an original (i.e. comparatively) or as an independent text -- remains an almost insurmountable one for her. Too often she wants to have it both ways, insisting: "what we read in a translation is the translator's writing" but, of course, unable (and unwilling) to deny the original author's work as well.
       This inherent dichotomy does pose real problems, but with her relatively narrow perspective on translation Grossman does not delve into it adequately either. She wants more credit for the translator but knows that the work's the thing, and that consumers are only concerned with the end-product; how good that product is and how close it is to the original it is based on are two different questions that she has a bit of difficulty juggling.
       Grossman has a specific idea of translation, which she she conveys fairly well -- perhaps best summed up when she writes:
To my mind, a translator's fidelity is not to lexical pairings but to context -- the implications and echoes of the first author's tone, intention, and level of discourse.
       She savages the "robotic pairing" of "a mechanistic and naïve one-for-one matching of individual elements across two disparate language systems", but this, itself, seems a simplistic exaggeration. Such absolute literalism isn't even possible with many languages, where there is no one-to-one mapping (on the word and grammar level) with, for example, English, but Grossman also doesn't seem to really consider a (more realistic) middle ground of something closer to literal translation than is widely practiced. She is all for translators being at liberty to do as they see fit. [Intrinsically suspicious (and having read enough translations in my time ...) I don't trust translators any further than I can throw them, and on the whole prefer a more lumbering but (literally-)faithful translation than one where the translator has had a great deal of ... creative input. The exceptions would be the cases where a true re-imagining of the text is necessary, in which case, however, I consider the translation truly distinct from the original. (Grossman may argue that all translations are 'true re-imaginings' and distinct texts, but I only want those when there is no alternative: Perec's La disparition and Adair's A Void, for example.)]
       [For what it's worth, my current favorite analogy-explanation of translation is, somewhat along Amis' lines, to think of the original as an image, say a photograph, and the translation a rendering in some other medium -- oil painting, watercolor, pastel, crayon. Some of the limitations are imposed by the medium: similar languages allow for close reproduction, so a contemporary French translation of a modern Italian text might be a realist oil-painting that's very similar in appearance to the original image, while other languages are so dissimilar -- say Chinese and English -- that the image can only be rendered in pastel, and regardless of how talented the artist is, the picture s/he creates can't capture the original in that same realistic way. And, obviously, regardless of the medium, the quality of the rendering will depend on how well the artist/translator can handle that medium -- whereby even a close-to-photo-realist oil painter may not capture the feel of the original as well as a talented abstract expressionist, and a beautifully executed watercolor may be much more pleasing than a hack-work oil painting.]
       One of the critical matters that Grossman also fails to address and admit to is that many translations are simply bad, too; there's something to be learnt from failures and from inadequate renderings, but we also have to face the fact that many foreign texts have been beaten and butchered in translation. Translators may be well-intentioned, but even the 'best' translators might not be equipped to deal with certain works or authors; the fact that they take down the original work with them is something that must weigh on at least the conscientious ones, but also something Grossman doesn't discuss.
       Still, there's something to be said for her enthusiasm and passion for translation, and the most successful parts of this volume are those in which she describes her own experiences of translating, whether with Don Quixote or with poetry. (It's interesting to see that for the poetic examples she gives she prints both the original and the English version -- allowing the reader to see where faithful (as she sees it) diverges from literal; with regards to prose she seems to be far more eager that readers simply take her (and other translators') words for it.)
       There's that "sweet spot" she describes, where she feels that she and the author:
have started to speak together -- never in unison, certainly in a kind of satisfying harmony
       Yet she also acknowledges that the translator's work is never done, reprinting part of her translator's note to Don Quixote in which she warns:
that "final" versions are determined more by a publisher's due date than by any sense on my part that the work is actually finished.
       It's perhaps the closest she comes to admitting to how translation differs from original work in fundamental ways -- a difference that really should have been explored in more depth. The original is, after all, a final version -- there seems no reason why a translation (of the sort she favors) can't be as well. (On a different level, Grossman also complains about the rates translators are paid, specifically for poetry but also fiction -- but she doesn't note that translators are almost always paid per word, for both fiction and poetry, while, for example, only in genre fiction are novel-authors paid per word -- an interesting fundamental difference in how the finished works (original and translation) are seen.)
       Grossman's critique of publishers and reviewers is a reasonable starting point, but that's also where it stops: she does little more than spray venom and complain. One can't blame her -- the situation is almost beyond belief -- but it doesn't move anything forward either. The most important figure, the reader, also gets short shrift -- and certainly consumer-attitudes (why won't they buy and/or read translated books ?) should be considered much more closely (is it because there aren't enough translations ? is it because too many translations aren't very good ? too foreign ? not foreign enough ? is there a stigma to translations that we must try to remove ?).
       Once the posturing starts -- "publishing houses in the United States and United Kingdom have an ethical and cultural responsibility to foster literature in translation", Grossman contends (a noble sentiment, but also a ridiculous one) -- one has moved into very dangerous territory. Her passion could have been put to better use conveying more of the wonders (and weaknesses) of translation, and how demand for it might be stimulated.
       A nice touch to the book is the appendix of 'A Personal List of Important Translations' -- and perhaps a greater focus on such things might have helped convey 'why translation matters' better, too. (Interestingly, Grossman reports that Günter Grass' The Tin Drum is translated by 'anonymous', as: "the name of the translator is nowhere to be found !" in her edition -- though she should know that it was Ralph Manheim's doing (now superseded by Breon Mitchell's new rendering).)
       Why Translation Matters is a provocative little volume, but not in the best senses. There's a lot to be said about why translation matters; Grossman convincingly conveys some of the reasons, but only touches upon other important questions and issues -- and she dismisses far too much far too easily, making for a rather frustrating read.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 May 2010

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Why Translation Matters: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Noted translator Edith Grossman was born in 1936.

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© 2010 the complete review

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