Skip to main content
A living bridge between two languages and four centuries

How does a translator convey a 400-year-old book from Spain to American readers in the 21 st century? Dr. Edith Grossman, an award-winning literary translator who has captured such major contemporary Latin American writers as Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, explored the question at a lecture organized by the IDB Cultural Center.

It was a “privilege, honor and glorious opportunity” to translate Cervantes, Grossman told the capacity audience of 250. He is modern in spirit and her approach to the project was similar to the one she uses for translating contemporary writers.

The language wasn't incomprehensible and/or archaic when Cervantes wrote it, explained Grossman, so she used “real English” in the translation, although sometimes she had to resort to footnotes to clarify obscure references. English has changed much more than Spanish over the centuries, she said, making Shakespeare harder for English speakers to read than Cervantes for Spanish-speakers.

Human experience stays basically the same, she pointed out, only the “surfaces” vary from place to place and time to time. Witness, for example, the friendship between the Don Quixote and his loyal squire Sancho Panza, or the cruelty of the duke and duchess, who humiliate them. This shared human experience, said Grossman, is what allows us to respond to and translate an older work.

To bridge the “temporal distance” between the 21st century and Cervantes's world, Grossman said she relied on her university studies of Spain's Golden Age, but wondered at first if that would be enough. She was used to consulting with people from the same region as the author and with the authors themselves, but this time she was on her own. Two sources proved invaluable, Martín de Riquer's notes in his edition of Don Quixote —the one she used—, and a 17 th century Spanish-English dictionary sent to her by a friend.

The key for any literary translation, she said, is to “hear” what an author is saying and begin to “speak” with the writer—not necessarily “in unison,” but in harmony,” she said, trying to reach that “sweet spot where I could get in the author's head.” 

Grossman discussed the “undersung” profession of translator in detail, decrying the contempt heaped upon it by the publishing industry and insisting that it is actually “decent, honorable and possible.” The ideal in this “utopian undertaking” is fidelity, she explained, but cautioned that fidelity should never be confused with literal translation.

Languages refuse to be regulated, she said, they overflow the bounds of dictionaries, “in perpetual rebellion.” In translation, the difficulty is heightened by the fact that the second language is “just as recalcitrant as the first.” The goal is to get the same effect, the same rhythm, in the second language as in the original.

Context is the key, she insisted. “The meaning of a passage can almost always be rendered, but the words almost never can.” The translator must do a close critical reading; know, feel and intuit the meaning; and then rewrite the text and context. In other words, the translator acts as a creator rather than a transmitter of text, the “living bridge between two realms.”

“I wanted to create a translation of Don Quixote that could be read with pleasure,” so that English-speaking readers would know why the novel is considered a masterpiece. Judging by both its reviews and its sales, she has succeeded.

Jump back to top