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Translators are mostly invisible, so you can imagine my surprise when I came across the following text, in which four reviewers give their opinions on Edith Grossman’s book about her profession, Why Translation Matters. It was used as a reading test for the Cambridge Advanced exam, and even though the reviewer’s names are nowhere to be seen, the insights are quite interesting.


✏ In Why Translation Matters, Grossman discusses a number of complex issues. Is translation merely a reflection in a clouded looking glass that will never mirror the true original? Is a translator merely a sophisticated tool, a human machine soon to be replaced by a computer program? She answers these and many other questions with a lyrical eloquence that is graceful and inspiring. In the process, we are also shown detailed examples of her solutions to knotty problems; here we see her joy in discovery and doing, the best reasons for pursuing a true vocation. Such inner drive is indispensable, because as she rightly says, ‘Translation is a strange craft, generally appreciated by writers, undervalued by publishers, trivialised by the academic world, and practically ignored by reviewers.’ And yet, where literature exists, translation exists and it is a good thing that these issues should be explored.

✏ Books by translators are few and far between. This short book was originally given as a series of three university lectures, and the ploys of a lecturer let down the writer: rhetorical questions, academic jargon. Grossman’s best thinking about translation, and her best defence of translation, will be reflected in her translations themselves. It is on the rare occasions that she focuses on overcoming the challenges that her craft throws up that the book becomes more pleasurable to read. She vents her frustration on the reader, and some of this is certainly justified: translators ask for very little —simply to be read, included in the cultural debate, understood— yet almost invariably fail to be given the credit they are due. Translation, for all that it seems a technical matter, is actually anything but. It’s a mode of reading so sympathetic and creative that the outcome is wholly original.

✏ There is a theory that all language is a form of translation, that we speak in order to translate the unknown into the known, the non-verbal into the verbal. Edith Grossman draws upon this theory in her book, rightly suggesting, I believe, that the translation of a literary work from one language into another involves much the same creative process as that which provoked the originating author, and the end product therefore stands alone. After a rich career, she is eminently well-qualified to speak on behalf of literary translators everywhere. Nevertheless, the role of the translator is undoubtedly one of the most unappreciated and unacknowledged in the world of literature. Grossman’s beautifully crafted book draws attention to this and may help to address the problem. It is accessible to the layperson and should be required reading on all university literature courses.

✏ Why Translation Matters by Edith Grossman is based on three lectures she gave at a university in the US. As an expert in the field, she has won several awards and would seem to have every reason to feel secure, if not serene. It seems inappropriate, therefore, that she should devote entire pages to criticising publishers and reviewers, in particular, for failing to give translators the respect they deserve. However small-minded these comments may look on the page, they do form a significant part of Grossman’s overall argument, which is that literature and translation are ‘absolutely inseparable’ and thus the translator is engaged in the very same activity as her author, and is, indeed, a writer herself. That translator’s version of the text, she maintains, is to be considered an original, too. Grossman’s approach is non-theoretical, as she ranges discursively over the usual concerns raised by (chiefly literary) translation in this ultimately charming little book.

If you are craving more readings, you’ll find a list of other interesting books on translation below:

General essays:

Focused on the profession itself:


  • Alejandro Moreno-Ramos, Mox’s Illustrated Guide to Freelance Translation and What They Don’t Tell You About Translation (self-published), available through his website.

You can expect to find gems such as this one:

the importance of patience for freelance translators


Have you read any of these? Is there any other you would add? Feel free to leave your comments.


Post scriptum

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