Edith Grossman: My close friendship with Cervantes and García Márquez
Well, not literally, but certainly in a sense that is more than figurative. Because I have been privileged to translate great books by both of these men, I’ve had the immense pleasure of spending long periods of time alone with them, pondering how they put their sentences together, how their voices resonate in the mind’s ear, how their thoughts and emotions emerge from the page to take on a three-dimensional solidity that seems to envelop and embrace the reader. By now it is a cliché, at least in translating circles, to talk about how closely translators read the works they bring over into another language and how profoundly they come to know the intricacies of each text, but generally left unsaid is any mention of the deep intimacy that close reading creates between author and translator.
The late Ralph Manheim, the eminent translator of German, once said that a translator is like an actor who speaks the author’s lines as the author would if he or she could speak English. Consider the interpenetration of sensibilities required for the actor/translator to speak those lines. We translators engage with our authors in a kind of Vulcan mind-meld that has little to do with 1960s television, Star Trek, or Mr. Spok. Whether it lies entirely outside the realm of science fiction is another question altogether, but the kind of empathic and empathetic identification necessary for that melding to happen – for actors to take on the psyches of their characters or for translators to write the world through the eyes of their authors – is not too different from the kinds of feelings that give rise to a close relationship with another person.
Not long after my translation of Don Quixote was published, I took part in a panel discussion of that wonderful novel and the difficulties inherent in bringing a 17th century book (not just any wonderful 17th century book but the foundation of the modern novel, one of the great masterpieces of world literature, and the Ur-text of all literature in Spanish) into the modern world four centuries later in another language. At some point the conversation devolved into talk about Miguel de Cervantes and not Don Quixote, and I found myself stating for all the world to hear that Cervantes was clearly one of the most attractive men who had ever lived and that I deeply regretted not being able to spend an evening with him having a great meal, drinking superb wine, and talking about whatever he might care to talk about. Was I half in love with the shade of a dead writer? Yes, of course I was. The personage named Cervantes hovering there behind the pages of Don Quixote was companionable and compassionate and clearly enamored of his two central characters in spite of all the lost teeth and beatings and humiliations he subjected them to in the course of the novel.
Before I began work on Don Quixote, I had sent my usual New Year’s notes to various people I didn’t have the chance to see very often during the year, García Márquez among them. We had met several times on his occasional visits to New York, and I had been immediately charmed. He was witty and smart, a combination of qualities I have always found irresistible. He liked to talk about books and movies and had registered at the hotel as Gabriel García in a not very successful attempt to avoid reporters and fans-cum-stalkers. In my New Year’s greeting, I mentioned that I was about to begin a translation of Don Quixote, and that the prospect both elated and terrified me. Not long afterward, I needed to speak to him about certain editorial questions that had arisen in a short story of his I had translated, which was scheduled to appear in the New Yorker. His secretary called me, and when García Márquez came on the line, his first words to me were: So, I hear you’re two-timing me with Cervantes [Pues, dicen que me estás poniendo cuernos con Cervantes]. I was so astonished that I couldn’t speak for a few seconds, and then I burst into laughter that seemed to go on indefinitely. Did he know I was half in love with Cervantes? More important, did he know I was half in love with him?
I have spent a fair amount of time with a considerable number of the writers I translate. We’ve shared good meals and wine and conversation, and I’m very fond of many of them, but the sense of intimacy that I’ve attempted to describe here doesn’t happen very often. The only other author whose work spoke so directly to the yearning romantic I keep hidden deep inside me was Álvaro Mutis, whom we lost in September of last year. I think it’s relevant that he and García Márquez had a long history together. They had been good friends for decades, were each other’s first readers, and in his dedication to The General in His Labyrinth, Gabo acknowledged that Álvaro had passed on to him the idea for writing his fictional biography of Simón Bolívar. The truth is I never grieved for the passing of Cervantes since he had been dead for so long, but Mutis’s death only half a year before García Márquez’s were losses I actively mourned. The world seems a dimmer place without my close friends. I know their work lives in the mind of each of their readers, which is where a writer achieves immortality, but that doesn’t really compensate for the awful fact that they are no longer here.
About the author
Edith Grossman is a translator, critic, and occasional teacher of literature in Spanish. She was born in Philadelphia, attended the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California at Berkeley, completed a PhD at New York University, and has been the recipient of awards and honors including Fulbright, Woodrow Wilson, and Guggenheim Fellowships, the PEN Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation, an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Queen Sofía Translation Prize, and induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Grossman has brought over into English poetry, fiction, and non-fiction by major Latin American writers, including Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Álvaro Mutis, and Mayra Montero. Peninsular works that she has translated include Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes, novels by Julián Ríos, Carmen Laforet, Carlos Rojas, and Antonio Muñoz Molina, poetry of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and The Solitudes of Luis de Góngora.
She lives in Manhattan and has two sons, both of whom are musicians.
Edith's book, Why Translation Matters, is available to buy from Foyles.