Behind the book

Talking with: Edith Grossman

Translation is an art and behind every great foreign-language author, there is a great translator capturing the tone, energy, and nuances of the work. For twenty-three years, Edith Grossman has been working with Gabriel García Márquez. As an award-winning translator of poetry and prose by several Spanish-language writers, she has mastered the skill of representing different tones and dialects, many of which we are not familiar with in America. Here, she talks about the experience of translating García Márquez's last work, the long-awaited memoir.
Interview conducted by Luba Ostashevsky

Q: How did you come to translate Gabriel García Márquez?
A: Lee Goerner, who was García Márquez's editor at Knopf in the 1980s, was looking for a translator for García Márquez's new book, at that point tentatively titled Love in the Time of Plague, and the word went out for a submission of sample chapters. I sent in 20 pages or so. I’m not sure how many other translators submitted samples,but mine was chosen.

Q: What do you find to be most challenging and most rewarding about translating García Márquez's books?
A: The challenges and the rewards are the same: to recreate for an English-speaking reader the artful language that a good writer uses, and García Márquez is more than a good writer. This requires a deep familiarity with English and its levels of discourse. You have to decide what level of English to use. You have to decide whether you’re going to use, for example, “teacher, master, instructor, or professor.” In the General in his Labyrinth, Bolívar used a very elevated language when with ladies but an often vulgar one with his soldiers. One of the reviews of my translation said I made Bolívar sound like a cop from the Bronx. I was concerned and told García Márquez, but he laughed and said that was exactly the effect he wanted to produce.

Q: What is different about translating this book of non-fiction as opposed to translating the novels?
A: I don’t think there is much difference. García Márquez keeps pointing out that fiction and journalism are essentially the same genre. For example, the British press couldn’t believe that the events depicted in News of a Kidnapping, which is an investigative report about murder and kidnapping in Colombia, actually happened, and it ended up listed as fiction.

García Márquez prides himself on writing every book as though he were a reporter. The same goes for this book of memoirs. As a matter of fact, he usually hires assistants to research background material. As opposed to writers who see their writing through the prism of their inner life, he tends to view himself and others more objectively, focusing on the external as the key to emotional life.

Q: What do you learn about Spanish-language/Latin American literature when you translate García Márquez?
A: English has a variety of pronounciations and languages, ranging from the West Indies to the East Indies, and a number of places in between. Similarly, during the age of discovery, Spain colonized vast territories in Latin America, and these versions of Spanish have been evolving for a good 500 hundred years; you can imagine the range and breadth of vocabulary and usage. Because García Márquez’s Spanish is predominantly Colombian, I am obliged to learn a number of words that exist nowhere else. He uses regionalisms, expressions that are limited to a particular class, words confined to a small town or a particular district. I consulted with three Colombians on some lexical puzzles in this book, and even they had trouble with some of them. One excused himself by saying this was a phrase from the mountains whereas he came from the coast.

Q:How has being García Márquez’s translator changed your life?
A: Translating a good writer deepens my perception of good writing in English because it obliges me to sharpen my own writing skills. I’ve been very lucky in my translating career because I admire the authors whose work I have brought over into English, and García Márquez is certainly outstanding among them.

"Living to Tell the Tale "
Written by Gabriel García Márquez / Translated by Edith Grossman
Published by Knopf ISBN: 9781400041343 Hardcover - 496 pages


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