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Re-Translating the Classics
January 17, 2011 - By: - In: In the News / Awards, Translation - Comments Off on Re-Translating the Classics

Edith Grossman is the most famous of contemporary translators in the English-speaking world. She gets more press than all other translators combined. Lynn Neary did a nice interview with her on All Things Considered.

Grossman is perhaps best known for her translation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Not only did Cervantes invent the modern novel, says Grossman, he was a cutting-edge writer 400 years ago. When Grossman talks about Cervantes, it’s almost as if he were still alive.

“I dearly love him,” she says. “I would love to have a meal with him, I’d love to have a couple of drinks with him, to sit and chat and talk about literature and all the other things you talk about with someone you are really very fond of.”

Cervantes had one good arm, the other rendered useless in the Italian wars, where he served with distinction under the Great Captain. They say his galley slave stories are a riot, from when he was chained to the oar of a corsair. Whoever he was, we can only know him by what he wrote, and for those of us twice removed by language and lifestyle, it’s only the translators who can bring it home.

Grossman reports that she spent two weeks on the first sentence alone, which must have been a pretty scary experience when you consider how many more pages she had to do at that point. I’ve got to admit I’ve only read about two-thirds of the book. Rocinante’s gait makes the trail seem awfully long.

Neary also interviewed Lydia Davis, whose translation of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was published in September. Davis spent a lot of time going through Flaubert’s mail, which must have been tedious, but she got some additional insights. Then she checked out all the other translations, which seems obvious to me, but which Grossman won’t do.

It’s great to see translators getting all this credit. I don’t remember this kind of attention to the opinions of translators, but then again, a few years ago, I wasn’t scouring the web for something I could crumple up and throw across the deadline.

As a translator, you might ask yourself, “Should I or shouldn’t I look at the other translations while I do my own translation?” The other question that might come to mind is, “If there are so many translations of this book already, why should I translate one more?”

Why, back in my day, the good old translations were good enough for us, and they didn’t call us the greatest generation for nothing! But dusty old moustaches like Lattimore and his bunch provide no hook for copywriters, hipsters and other influencers. But with new translators, new story, new press… do it right and you’ve got a mini blockbuster on your hands. One translator friend of mine translated a kids’ book about poop and made enough to buy a house off of it. And that, my friends, is a good thing. And the reason why more translation is good for translators.

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