I was gratified to see a huge turnout for the launch of the Bridge Series last night. The nice folks at McNally Jackson had to keep setting up more and more rows of chairs. And it was great to hear two excellent translators read from their work: the justifiably celebrated Edith Grossman from her translation of A Manuscript of Ashes by Antonio Muñoz Molina, and the much younger translator Steve Dolph, a founding editor of Calque, from The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan José Saer, recently published by Open Letter Books. And I was doubly gratified by the fact that when the time for the question and answer period came, it turned out that pretty much everyone in the room was actually eager to talk about translation – it was a lively discussion. Here are a few of the nuggets of wisdom that I managed to jot down in my notes despite the head cold fogging my skull:
When asked whether great writers are more difficult to translate than lesser ones, Edith Grossman remarked that it often happens that the greatest writers manage to preserve an essential clarity even while writing in a complex style, and that this can make their work actually easier to translate than that of writers whose sentences are in some way murky or fuzzy (I’m afraid I’ve fleshed out this quote with adjectives based on my own experience). She also shared an anecdote about working with author Julián Rios, himself the translator of James Joyce into Spanish; Rios kindly offers to look over her translations of his pun-happy, knotty prose before she turns them in, and in one case he discovered a funny lapse: she had blithely translated a sentence about a “quiet Sunday,” missing the fact that Rios was punning on the name Placido Domingo. (I’m sure she managed a prodigious number of even trickier puns though.)
Asked about the specific challenges of translating from Spanish in particular, Grossman noted that writers in Spanish are often enamored of the semi-colon, a bit of punctuation that quickly gets annoying in English (if I may quote Donald Barthelme: ugly as a tick on dog’s belly), while Steve Dolph pointed out that subordination works differently in Spanish and English, such that a translated sentence can easily wind up trying to contain more clauses than fit comfortably in an English-language sentence (a problem I know all too well from my adventures with German).
At one point Grossman remarked that the English language has changed more quickly over time than Spanish, which is why Spanish readers today can read Cervantes with relative ease, while the language of his contemporary William Shakespeare seems so difficult now. In large part for this reason, she makes a point of reading as many books as she can by younger English-language writers – it’s important, she says, to keep being reminded of what is possible in English (a phrase I applaud with all my heart). She says she wants always to be aware of what younger writers are doing to make the language more supple and flexible. That’s a very Schleiermachian desire, and I couldn’t agree more.
Of course, in Schleiermacher’s universe, it’s the translators who keep the language “supple and flexible” for the benefit of other writers, but I think Grossman is quite right to frame this venture in a more communal spirit.