Edith Grossman: a beacon in the translation community, an artist across cultures

The world of literary translation lost one of its most luminary figures on September 4, 2023, when Edith Grossman passed away from pancreatic cancer at the age of 87. Her impact on translation, especially in the Latin American and Spanish literature landscape, remains indelible.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she later made New York City her home. She embarked on an academic career with impressive credentials: a B.A. and M.A. from the University of Pennsylvania, graduate work at UC Berkeley, and a Ph.D. from New York University with a thesis on Chilean “anti-poet” Nicanor Parra. But it was in 1972, upon a friend’s request to translate a story by Argentine avant-garde writer Macedonio Fernández, that Grossman discovered her true calling. By 1990, she had left academia to dedicate herself fully to the art of translation.

Grossman often emphasized the nuanced, complex nature of translation. In her memorable 2003 speech at the PEN Tribute to Gabriel García Márquez, she articulated her philosophy: “Fidelity is our noble purpose, but it does not have much, if anything, to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable.”

Grossman’s impact is not limited to the literary community. Her thoughts on the ethical considerations and technical intricacies of translating have been illuminating for all language professionals. Her life’s work is an educational odyssey, inspiring a multitude of seminars, academic courses, and workshops that explore the complexity and artistry involved in translating.

Perhaps one of her most practical contributions to all translators was her advocacy for our recognition. She insisted that her name appear on the covers of the books she translated — a stark departure from the tradition of uncredited translations. In Grossman’s words, it was “bloody well about time” for translators to be considered equal partners in the literary endeavor, challenging the notion that translations appeared “through kind of a divine miracle.”

Grossman’s illustrious career included translations of literary giants like Mario Vargas Llosa, Gabriel García Márquez, and Miguel de Cervantes. Her translation of Don Quixote in 2003 earned praise from critics such as Carlos Fuentes and Harold Bloom, the latter of whom dubbed her “the Glenn Gould of translators, because she, too, articulates every note.” However, Grossman’s work wasn’t without its critics. Scholars like Tom Lathrop and Daniel Eisenberg questioned the faithfulness and source choices in her Don Quixote translation, illustrating the complex debates surrounding translating seminal texts.

Grossman’s skill was recognized through a myriad of awards, including the 2006 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation and the 2022 Thornton Wilder Prize for Translation. In 2016, Grossman was honored with the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Civil Merit, a prestigious accolade bestowed upon her by King Felipe VI of Spain. In a testament to the quality of her work, Gabriel García Márquez himself once said that he preferred reading his novels in their English translations by Grossman and Gregory Rabassa.

Before Grossman’s transformative work, translations of literature from the Spanish-speaking world often suffered from a loss of depth, nuance, and cultural resonance. She not only raised the bar but set a new standard entirely. Through her meticulous translations, monumental novels like One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Feast of the Goat received not just attention but critical acclaim in the English-speaking world. In doing so, Grossman demonstrated that translators are artists in their own right, pivotal in sharing the depth and richness of global cultures.

For translators like me, hailing from the vibrant cultures of Latin America, Grossman’s legacy is a beacon that guides us in the intricate, oft-misunderstood art of translation. As language professionals continue to grapple with the nuances and challenges inherent in bringing one culture’s literature to another, Grossman’s philosophies and standards undoubtedly serve as foundational pillars.

In the intricate tapestry of literary translation, few threads shine as brightly as the legacy of Edith Marion Grossman. Her passing marked the end of an era, but the indelible imprint she left on the art of translation — particularly in Latin American and Spanish literature — will continue illuminating the path for translators worldwide.

Melissa Harkin
MELISSA HARKIN is an ATA-certified translator specializing in Portuguese, Spanish, and English.


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