Friday, April 2, 2010

Incursions into the sacrosanct

From an article by Edith Grossman, translator of Don Quixote:

...These kinds of considerations and speculations and problematic
questions are always in my mind whenever I think about translation,
especially when I am actually engaged in bringing a work of literature
over into English. They certainly occupied a vast amount of mental
space when I agreed to take on the immense task of translating Don
Quixote, but only after I had repeatedly asked the publisher whether
he was certain he had called the right Grossman, because my work as a
translator had been focused on contemporary Latin American writers,
not giants of the Renaissance in Spain. Much to my joy, he assured me
that in fact I was the Grossman he wanted, and so my intimate,
translatorial connection to the great novel began.

But there was more: hovering over me were dark sui generis clouds of
intense trepidation, vast areas of apprehension and disquiet peculiar
to this project. You can probably imagine what they were (just think
what it would mean to an English-Spanish translator to take on the
work of Shakespeare), but I will try to clarify a few of them for you.

There were the centuries of Cervantean scholarship, the specialized
studies, the meticulous research, the untold numbers of books,
monographs, articles, and scholarly editions devoted to this
fiction-defining novel and its groundbreaking creator. Was it my
obligation to read and reread all of these publications before
embarking on the translation? A lifetime would not be enough time to
do this scholarly tradition justice, I was no longer a young woman,
and I had a two-year contract with the publisher.

There were other translations into English—at least twenty, by
someone's count—a few of them recent and others, like Tobias
Smollett's eighteenth-century version, considered classics in their
own right. Was it my professional duty to study all of them? Before I
took on the project, I recalled having read Don Quixote at least ten
times, as a student and as a teacher, but always in Spanish except for
my first encounter with the novel, in Samuel Putnam's 1949
translation, when I was a teenager. I had read no other translations
since then. Was I willing to delay the work by years to give myself
time to read each English-language version with care? To what end? Did
I really want to fill my mind with the echoes of other translators'
perceptions and interpretations?
Then there was the question of temporal distance, a chasm of four
centuries separating me from Cervantes and the world in which he
composed his extraordinary novel. I had translated complex and
difficult texts before, some of them exceptionally obscure and
challenging, in fact, but they were all modern works by living
writers. Would I be able to transfer my contemporary experience as a
translator to the past and feel some measure of ease as I brought the
Spanish of the seventeenth century over into the English of the
twenty-first? As a student I had spent a good number of years studying
the prose writers and poets of the Spanish Golden Age, Cervantes among
them, with some of the most erudite specialists in the field,
including Joaquín Casalduero, Otis Green, Antonio Rodríguez-Moñino,
and José Montesinos, but was this sufficient preparation for
undertaking the translation of a book that has the hallowed stature of
a sacred text? Would my efforts—my incursions into the
sacrosanct—amount to blasphemy?

What was I to do about the inevitable lexical difficulties and obscure
passages? These occur in prodigious numbers in contemporary works and
were bound to reach astronomical proportions in a work that is four
hundred years old. As I've said, normally when I translate I dig
through countless dictionaries and other kinds of references—most
recently Google—for the meaning of words I don't know, and then my
usual practice is to talk with those kind, patient, and generous
friends who are from the same country as the author, and preferably
from the same region within the country. As a last step in my lexical
searches, I generally consult with the original writer, not for the
translation of a word or phrase but for clarification of his or her
intention and meaning. But Don Quixote clearly was a different matter:
none of my friends came from the Spain of the early seventeenth
century, and short of channeling, I had no way to consult with
Cervantes. I was, I told myself in a tremulous voice, fervently
wishing it were otherwise, completely on my own.

Two things came to my immediate rescue: the first was Martín de
Riquer's informative notes in the Spanish edition of the book I used
for the translation (I told García Márquez, whose Living to Tell the
Tale I worked on immediately after Don Quixote, that Cervantes was
easier to translate than he was because at least in a text by
Cervantes there were notes at the bottom of the page). Riquer's
editorial comments shed light on countless historical, geographical,
literary, and mythical references, which I think tend to be more
obscure for a modern reader than individual lexical items. Throughout
his edition, Riquer takes on particularly problematic words by
comparing their renderings in the earliest translations of Don Quixote
into English, French, and Italian, and I have always found this—one
language helping to explicate another—especially illuminating. The
second piece of invaluable assistance came from an old friend, the
Mexican writer Homero Aridjis, who sent me a photocopy of a dictionary
he had found in Holland when he was a diplomat there: a
seventeenth-century Spanish-English dictionary first published by a
certain gentleman named Percivale, then enlarged by a professor of
languages named Minsheu, and printed in London in 1623. The dictionary
was immensely helpful at those dreadful times when a word was not to
be found in María Moliner, or in the dictionary of the Real Academia,
or in Simon and Schuster, Larousse, Collins, or Williams. I do not
mean to suggest that there were no excruciatingly obscure or archaic
phrases in Don Quixote—it has a lifetime supply of those—but despite
all the difficulties I was fascinated to realize how constant and
steady Spanish has remained over the centuries (as compared with
English, for example), which meant that I could often use contemporary
wordbooks to help shed light on a seventeenth-century text.

I wondered, too, if the novel would open to me as contemporary works
sometimes do, and permit me to immerse myself in the intricacies of
its language and intention. Would I be able to catch at least a
glimpse of Cervantes's mind as I listened to his prose and began to
live with his characters, and would I be able to keep that image
intact as I searched for equivalent voices in English? On occasion, at
a certain point in the translation of a book, I have been lucky enough
to hit the sweet spot, when I can begin to imagine that the author and
I have started to speak together—never in unison, certainly, but in a
kind of satisfying harmony. In those instances it seems as if I can
hear the author's voice in my mind speaking in Spanish at the same
time that I manage to find a way to speak the work in English. The
experience is exhilarating, symbiotic, certainly metaphorical, and
absolutely crucial if I am to do what I am supposed to do—somehow get
into the author's head and behind the author's eyes and re-create in
English the writer's linguistic perceptions of the world.

And here I must repeat Ralph Manheim's observation comparing the
translator to an actor who speaks as the author would if the author
could speak English. A difficult role, and arduous enough with
contemporary writers. What would happen to my performance when I began
to interpret the work of an author who wrote in the seventeenth
century—and not just an ordinary author but the remarkable man who is
one of a handful of splendid writers who have determined the course of
literature in the Western tradition? Despite all my years of study, I
am not a Golden Age specialist: would I be able to play the Cervantean
part and speak those memorable lines, or would the entire quixotic
enterprise close down on its first night out of town, before it ever
got to Broadway? Would I, in short, be able to write passages that
would afford English-language readers access to this marvelous novel,
allow them to experience the text in a way that approaches how readers
in Spanish experience it now, and how readers experienced it four
hundred years ago?

These were some of the fears that plagued me as I prepared to take on
the project, but the prospect was not entirely bleak, dire, and
menacing, of course. The idea of working on Don Quixote was one of the
most exciting things that had happened to me as a translator. It was a
privilege, an honor, and a glorious opportunity—thrilling,
overwhelming, and terrifying. At this point I had the exchange with
Julián Ríos that I mention in my translator's note to Don Quixote. I
told Julián about the project, and about the apprehension I felt, and
he told me not to be afraid because, he said, Cervantes was our most
modern writer. All I had to do, according to Julián, was translate
Cervantes the way I translated everyone else, meaning the contemporary
authors whose works—Ríos's included—I had brought over into English.
As I said in the note, this was "a revelation; it desacralized the
project and allowed me, finally, to confront the text and find the
voice in English"—in other words, Julián's comments permitted me to
begin the process of translation. In the back of my mind was the
rather fanciful notion that if I could successfully translate the
opening phrase—probably the most famous words in Spanish, comparable
to the opening lines of Hamlet's "To be, or not to be" soliloquy in
English, or, in Italian, the inscription over the gate to hell
envisioned by Dante in the Commedia, and known even to people who have
not read the entire work—then the rest of the novel would somehow fall
into place. The first part of the sentence in Spanish reads: "En un
lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme…" I recited
those words to myself as if they were a mantra, until an English
phrase materialized that seemed to have a comparable rhythm and drive,
that played with the multiple meanings of the word lugar (both "place"
and "village"), and that echoed some of the sound of the original:
"Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to
remember…" It felt right to me, and with a rush of euphoric
satisfaction I told myself I might actually be able to translate this
grand masterpiece of a book.


To this I should add a phrase attributed to Samuel Beckett: "Try
Again. Fail again. Fail better." That is all any of us can do.

End of quote. The full article lives here: