A Quixotic Study Abroad Adventure
When I was much younger and far more ambitious (or perhaps just more arrogant) I enrolled in a Don Quixote class at the Universidad Complutense in Madrid. This was a straight-up literature class, and it wasn’t tailored to study abroad students.
The class was full of real living, breathing Spaniards, most of whom I imagined had at least studied Quixote basics in high school, the same way American adolescents take on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet.
I, the girl who then didn’t possess enough vocabulary or courage to even order meat from the deli counter at my grocery store, was not only trying to read the world’s first and most important novel, but I was trying to do it in its original archaic Spanish just like my Spanish classmates.
I was so far in over my head I couldn’t even conceive of how far that was. I spent so much time stubbornly muddling through the Spanish syntax that I had no grasp on the narrative at all. Rereading the same paragraphs over and over, and still getting nowhere, I went in search of some help.
En un lugar de Nueva York, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme, no ha mucho tiempo que escribía un maravilla la traductora Doña Edith
The book is good. How good? I remember spending a six-hour layover at the airport in Brussels just devouring page after page. To this day that remains the most pleasant layover of my life! But don’t take my word for it.
Renowned Mexican author Carlos Fuentes praised Grossman’s translation in the New York Times, writing “Edith Grossman delivers her ‘Quixote’ in plain but plentiful contemporary English. The quality of her translation is evident in the opening line: ‘Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.’ This ‘Don Quixote’ can be read with the same ease as the latest Philip Roth and with much greater facility than any Hawthorne. Yet there is not a single moment in which, in forthright English, we are not reading a 17th-century novel. This is truly masterly: the contemporaneous and the original co-exist.”
Terry Castle of The Atlantic implores readers to “[…] get hold of Don Quixote and make time for it. It will be worth the television sitcoms you skip, the thirty or so quiet evenings you spend on it,” and admits that “the book quite staggered me with its charm, beauty, and profundity.” (Emphasis in original.)
I’m so grateful Edith Grossman wrote this book, especially considering that when a publisher approached her about translating Quixote, she explained that she specialized in translating contemporary Latin American works, and asked him if he was sure he was calling the correct Edith Grossman!
“When we had agreed that in fact I was the Grossman he wanted, I had to deal with my absolute terror at taking on this book [Quixote]. It was terror and huge excitement,” Grossman recalls in the video below.
In the video above, Grossman also says that while she undertook her translation she made a conscious effort not to read any other English translations; she was searching for the right voice for her Quixote, and she wanted no interference.
But after finishing Part One she felt secure enough in the story’s tone that she decided it might be useful to refer to past English translations as thought they were dictionaries for the story, especially in areas she found problematic. However, she discovered that past translators has also grappled with the same problem areas and often took different approaches in addressing them!
What an incredible woman. First to have the bravery to take on such an iconic work, and then to have the discipline and faith to actively pursue finding her own authentic Cervantine voice. I especially admire that when she turned outward for information it was only to aid in her clearly established quest. There was no messing with her mission, and that was by her very wise design.
Edith Grossman: The Voice Behind the Las Voces
Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote is considered a masterpiece by critics around the world. I imagine “masterpiece” isn’t a word they throw around lightly.
As sometimes happens when I become smitten with an admirer of a creative person, I began seeking information about Grossman on the internet. I was really curious. Who was she? Why had she been selected to take on Quixote? I was also curious at what age she began her extraordinary career.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
As of 2015, Ms. Grossman is seventy-nine years old and lives and works in New York City. She did not grow up in a Spanish-speaking household, and like me, she didn’t begin studying the language until high school. Grossman majored in Spanish as an undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania before heading to Berkeley for graduate school and earning her PhD from New York University. While she began her academic career focusing on medieval works, she remembers the particular text that shifted her interests.
“Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra (Residence on Earth) in particular was a revelation,” Grossman recalled in a 2010 speech called “Why Translation Matters.” “It altered radically the professional direction that I followed and actually changed the tenor of my life. It elucidated for me, as if for the first time, the possibilities of poetry in a contemporary environment. Above all, it underscored the central position of Latin America in the literature of the world, its impact made possible and even more telling by means of translation.”
Although she had turned her academic focus toward Latin America, she hadn’t yet begun to ponder a career as a literary translator. That journey began, almost by chance, in her mid-30s.
Grossman had a friend who edited a small academic journal, and that friend wanted her to translate an article by an Argentine writer. Although initially hesitant, Grossman relented and did her friend the favor, and discovered along the way that she enjoyed the work!
Karla Zabludovsky reports in this Newsweek article that chance also caused Grossman’s path to cross with that of South America’s most famous author, the Colombian Gabriel García Márquez. Grossman’s neighbor happened to be a literary agent who approached her about translating a work by García Márquez.
That work was his acclaimed worldwide bestseller and instant classic El amor en los tiempos de cólera known in English as Love in the Time of Cholera. She continued translating García Márquez’s works until his death in 2012.
Grossman has also given English voice to numerous works written by some of the best Spanish-language authors in the world, including Mario Vargas Llosa, Ariel Dorfman, Carlos Fuentes, and nearest and dearest to my heart, Grossman translated the 1943 classic Nada by Carmen Laforet.
Below is the full version of Grossman’s “Why Translation Matters” speech, which includes her reading of an excerpt of her book by the same name. The whole speech is about 45 minutes long, but fascinating.
In my view, Edith Grossman is the most important living Spanish literary translator. If it is possible to be an utter ‘fangirl’ of a translator, well, I think I’m there. I encourage you to pick up some of the works she has translated, either from your local library or bookstore, or yo can also get them by visiting these Amazon links which follow.
Please note that this post contains affiliate links, and if you decide to buy an item using the links I may earn a small commission. However, you won’t pay more going through an Amazon affiliate link than you would have just visiting the Amazon site on your own. This is not a sponsored post and all opinions are my own. And my opinion is Edith Grossman is awesome.