Edith Grossman on Don Quixote

[Cross-posted from 400 Windmills]

Last night’s lecture was the 49th Annual Fordham University Cervantes Lecture, the first such lecture by a translator and a celebration of the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote. It was, in short, an evening laden with significance of a symbolic kind. Much of what I have to say will mirror Danielle’s post, but it seems only fitting, in light of the post-modernity of our early modern text, to indulge in such games of mirroring, doubling, reflection, and alteration.

In spite of all the anniversaries we weren’t overwhelmed with pomp. Fifty or sixty people gathered on the twelfth (top) floor of Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus to hear Edith Grossman talk. It was engaging, interesting, smart, warm, and, at the same time, fierce. In the end, the most interesting subject that emerged from the evening was the beautiful, utopian paradox of translation. She believes, at one and the same time, that a translator’s job is fidelity to the literary text and that a translation is, in itself, an original work of art.

In the question period, someone (Danielle, as it turns out!) pressed her to explain how both of these things could be true and she began by saying that part of being human was being able to dwell in contradiction, but, in fact, this question and her not being troubled by it, pulled the whole evening together for me. She began her talk with an epigraph from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale: “It is impossible to say a thing exactly as it was…Too many flavors in the air and on the tongue. Half colors. Too many.” And throughout she spoke eloquently, plead, really, on behalf of translation as an art, as an endeavor worthy of respect.

She spoke, too, of the special anxieties of translating Cervantes—of the overwhelming amount of scholarship on the text, the many existing English translations, the huge gap in time—the special aids she used, not being able to call upon a native speaker of 17th century Spanish, including a photocopy of a friend’s English-Spanish dictionary from 1623. She decided that, famous as the first line of the novel is (as famous among Spanish speakers, she said, as the opening of Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy), if she could translate it to her satisfaction, she would be all right. She read the line in Spanish and then how she’d done it and it seemed clear, even to this sorry ear, that she’d done it just right.

The question and answer session was lively, friendly, and informative. I occasionally thought that she was worried that a Cervantes scholar might attack but, in fact, that never happened: the questions were civil and engaged. I asked her what her desk looks like and that seemed to be as alarming as anything. “Are you from the neatness police?” Au contraire! So, she described a huge surface with two pull out shelves, one for each of her two most trusted dictionaries. For me, that was one of the treats of the evening, to be able to imagine the translator at work. Again and again, she demonstrated the fierce love of literature that drove her to create this utterly original, totally faithful text that we’re so enjoying. She reminded me of a lion, maybe the lions at the Public Library: noble, brilliant, proud, and lethal if wronged. I came away with a newfound respect for her and hunger to catch up on my reading.