Edith Grossman and Eduardo Lago at Idlewild Books, February 5, 2009
Edith Grossman’s English translation of Don Quixote, published in 2003, is praised as an honest as well as accessible version of Cervantes’s masterwork. The project’s success came from a determination to íget it right,ë as Grossman said during her talk with Spanish novelist Eduardo Lago this past Thursday evening at Idlewild Books (part of our ongoing, collaborative series titled íConversations on Great Contemporary Literatureë). It was Grossman’s ambition to honor the significance of Don Quixote as a prose model for Spanish literature. íThough we have Shakespeare and the Bible for poetry,ë she said, íthere’s really no equivalent for prose in our language. In Spanish literature, everyone is informed by Cervantes.ë The English template she chose as a point of entry was the novel of the 19th Century, in part the work of Jane Austen. íI hope Austen doesn’t mind,ë she said. Grossman has read Don Quixote many times in Spanish but only one version in English, and as a teenager. She mentioned Tobias Smollet’s 17th-Century translation as a work she’d like to read, having heard that it is a íbeautiful piece of writing.ë
The evening began with a glowing introduction of both participants by event coordinator Tom Burke. In response to Lago’s first question to her, a general inquiry about the function of translation, Grossman pointed out the problems cited by Walter Benjamin on the nature of translation. As the talk went on, each of them seemed to be informed by Benjamin’s íTask of the Translator,ë from Lago’s claim that even bad translations cannot prevent important works from being appreciated in another language (he cites early Spanish translations of Faulkner) to his point that certain works, from Don Quixote to Ulysses, are universal books, ínot quintessentially Spanish or Irish.ë She told a story about a talk she had with fellow translator Gregory Rabassa, who was asked by ísome idiot,ë she said, if he felt like his Spanish was good enough to translate Marquez. íHe asked the wrong question,ë she told us. íHe should have asked if his English was good enough.ë
This came after Lago questioned Grossman on whether she preferred to bring the text closer to the reader or the reader closer to the text, by bringing it to a contemporary context.—íthat sounds like a false dichotomy,ë she’d said. Her mission with Cervantes was to honor the book’s strengths as well as its weaknesses, and the hardest part, she said, was preserving íall the bad poetry.ë Lago’s anecdote, of catching a street kid reading Don Quixote on an uptown subway in 80s New York, fully engaged by the hilarity of it, seemed to redeem the book’s potential for universality, no matter what translation a reader picks up. Benjamin’s central notion, that a poet’s original work will always be the primary source, that a translation is íderivative, ultimate, ideational,ë does not defeat the fact that ítranslatability is an essential quality of certain works.ë Benjamin’s prototype for translation is the example of Biblical texts, unmarred by translation because their text is considered íthe true language;ë they are íunconditionally translatable.ë
What is most interesting about translation, perhaps, is the legacy of these universal authors (Lago mentioned Homer, Tolstoy, and Kafka, in addition to Grossman’s citation of Joyce, along with Cervantes’s influence on Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, and Kundera) with nothing exclusively national about them. Part of why people read books in translation is to learn about other cultures (and perhaps the market for translated books is marginal because of this), but another reason may be that they are driven by a search for the echo of those universal voices, and the hope to discover a new one.