Why Translation Matters: still a mystery
A Contrary review by David M. Smith

Why Translation Matters 
Edith Grossman
Yale University Press
2010
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“We run fewer pieces on translated works,” explains the book review editor of Atlantic Monthly, Benjamin Schwartz. “We tend to focus on prose-style in our assessment of fiction. It’s obviously far more difficult to do so when reviewing literature in translation, because both reviewer and reader of the book encounter not the author's writing but the translator's rendering of it."
Quite understandably, this sort of indifference is a source of continual vexation for veteran translator Edith Grossman. She uses this quote as an example of “the peculiar disparagement and continual undervaluing of what we do by some publishers and many reviewers.” Hence, Why Translation Matters is in large part an apology, a defense of a craft that Grossman paints as under siege and constantly faced with the burden of self-justification.
If translation does matter, then to whom, exactly? It matters, of course, to the writers whose works are translated, and the translators themselves; but first and foremost, suggests Grossman, it matters to us as readers, for “at the center of discussions of books and literature is the reader.” 
Hence Grossman invites us to imagine the poverty of our literary experience without the presence of translations. She notes the impact of Spanish translations of William Faulkner upon the young Gabriel Garcia Márquez, “an initiation that would not have been possible without the existence of literary translations.… None of this rich literary cross-fertilization could have happened if Faulkner and so many others had never been translated.”
Grossman’s focus upon the reader’s experience makes a certain amount of sense. The critical diffidence expressed by Benjamin Schwartz, benighted though it may seem, points to an anxiety that belongs essentially to readers. How can we, as readers, be sure that we get that elusive “sense of the original”? Isn’t it forever beyond our grasp, as long as we cannot understand the original language?
I take it this anxiety is the result when, in Grossman's words, “readers of the second language [should] perceive the text, emotionally and artistically, in a manner that parallels and corresponds to the esthetic experience of its first readers.” We begin to think we can never have the exact sense of the original, but only an approximation. How close an approximation is up to the right kind of reader to determine. Translation is, after all, “a series of… imaginative acts of criticism,” so translators are necessarily among the best of all readers.
Unfortunately, such a reader-centered discussion of translation would seem to lead to more difficulties than it solves. If what we are after is the notion of translatability itself, that is, how translations are possible at all – no matter how good or bad – then it is entirely irrelevant to contemplate what readers' lives would be like without translations, a topic Grossman develops at some length. Then we would only be talking about “a demand to which human beings had failed to respond,” as Walter Benjamin points out in “The Task of the Translator.” Even if society somehow failed to produce translators and translations, or even readers for that matter, the very possibility of translation would remain to be elucidated.
Hence, to locate this possibility inside the right kind of reader or translator is merely to restate the problem in a more circuitous manner. Grossman emphasizes “the work of the translator [as] the connection that has allowed [us] to read the book in the first place.” On this view, both original and translation are reduced to the service of conveying something, and this something can be conveyed more or less successfully, or not at all; we are left with, in short, “the inexact transmission of an inessential content,” as Walter Benjamin puts it. This “inessential” element can tell us nothing concrete about the status of these works, and only threatens to become a general embarrassment to the enterprise of literature. 
If all translation’s efforts are simply to be laid at the feet of a reader, then Benjamin Schwartz’s suspicions about it are entirely justified. Though Grossman’s passion for her craft is palpable enough, and her gifts as a translator just as plain, I cannot see where her analysis moves beyond this basic difficulty. “I do regret very sincerely that so few [critics] have devised an intelligent way to review both original and translation,” she says, calling this a symptom of “intransigent dilettantism and tenacious amateurism.”
She is of course right about the short supply of intelligent readers. In the end, however, how to go about finding them is hardly compelling as literary analysis.


David M. Smith is a regular reviewer for Contrary.


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