The importance of translation in bringing new books and ideas into English is crucial. Although no one has declared a universal language since Louis XIV, the dominance of English in international commerce, media, and even academia is impossible to ignore. Yet merely an estimated three percent of the hundreds of thousands of books published in the United States have been translated from non-English languages, and the volume of new, translated work from modern and contemporary writers is even less.
What would readers in English do without translation? Steig Larsson wrote the Millenium series in Swedish. Paulo Coelho penned The Alchemist in his native Portuguese. Consider: The Bible. And it goes without saying that classics like Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote would be otherwise lost to English audiences were it not for the continuance of translation. Heralded as the “Glenn Gould” of translators by Harold Bloom, Edith Grossman’s translation of the sixteenth-century Spanish novel has been considered itself a masterpiece.
How could a translation be considered separate from the original if it’s the same thing? IT’S NOT. Translation never is. When Garry Wills reviewed Sarah Ruden’s new translation of The Aeneid for the New York Review of Books, he called it “a great English poem in itself.” As Grossman herself often expresses: “[You] don’t do translations with tracing paper. No two languages match.” Writing in her book, Why Translation Matters, the experience of not one, but two artists comes alive:
In the process of translating, we [translators] endeavor to hear the first version of the work as profoundly and completely as possible, struggling to discover the linguistic charge, the structural rhythms, the subtle implications, the complexities of meaning and suggestion in vocabulary and phrasing, and the ambient cultural inferences and conclusions these tonalities allow us to extrapolate. This is a kind of reading as deep as any encounter with a literary text can be.
It is thanks to the adamantine commitment and dedication of organizations and publications like Words Without Borders, Three Percent, Asymptote Journal, Literary Translation at Columbia, and the American Literary Translators Association that the craft and presence of translated writing persists in American circles, that translators find the outlets for their difficult work, few though they may be. For our own part as an English-language publisher, Yale University Press has its Margellos World Republic of Letters series and many other translated titles that we are celebrating with our “Lost Without Translation” section of our blog. It’s certain that no one will speak all of the world’s languages, though they may be shrinking in number. Nevertheless, you might never know what you’re missing or how you can relate to an existence elsewhere, elsewhen, if it is never accessible to you in your own familiar words.
Here is a brief clip of Edith Grossman on translating Don Quixote, her art, and process from her 2009 talk presented by Words Without Borders and Idlewild Books. The full series of clips from the talk is available from the Words Without Borders YouTube channel.