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JEFFREY BROWN: Last year, a panel of 100 writers from around the world picked “Don Quixote” as the greatest novel of all time. Now translator Edith Grossman has produced a new English language version of Miguel Cervantes’ Spanish classic from the early 1600s. Grossman has been known until now for her translations of contemporary Latin American authors. Don Quixote’s tilting with windmills and other adventures, of course, have been the stuff of magazines, musicals, and the western imagination for 400 years. I talked with Edith Grossman recently in her New York apartment.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you have a major classic by any standard, and you have to sit down to translate it. It must be scary.
EDITH GROSSMAN: Terrifying.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why?
EDITH GROSSMAN: Terrifying. Part of it is the weight of 400 years of scholarship. The other part is the immense responsibility involved in translating a book of this stature, and the influence that your translation will have on readers.
JEFFREY BROWN: What is it that makes it so compelling? I mean, why does it still have influence almost 400 years later?
EDITH GROSSMAN: Part of it has to do with the writing style of Cervantes, who was a brilliant writer. Another part of it has to do with the characters he created, who are truly modern in the sense that they are not at the end of the novel who they were at the beginning, but they change and grow and develop and have an impact on the world, and the world has an impact on them. And they interact with each other and with other people whom they meet.
JEFFREY BROWN: One of the things that you say in your preface is that the essential challenge in translation is discovering the voice to write the text in English: Taking the Spanish and finding the voice in English. What do you mean by that?
EDITH GROSSMAN: Ralph Manheim, who was a translator from Germany, once said that translators are like actors who say other people’s lines, and speak as the author would speak if the author spoke English. And so what we try to do, what translators try to do, is hear that voice and find the voice in English that matches it. I’m trying to reach to contemporary readers, but I am also… translating is rather schizophrenic, so I’m trying to reach back as well to the authentic sound of the author.
And what I mean by sound and voice is that there is elevated diction, for example– the difference between Don Quixote’s ordinary language and Sancho’s ordinary language is enormous. Quixote is a very well-educated man, and Sancho Panza is illiterate, so their levels of language are different. Cervantes makes it very clear that they’re different. And what I was trying to do was to recreate that difference in English.
JEFFREY BROWN: But when you’re dealing with an older book, how do you make it come alive for a contemporary audience?
EDITH GROSSMAN: In the case of Cervantes, I kept telling myself that when he wrote it, it was not archaic. He was not writing a quaint Spanish. It was not archaic Spanish. He really pushed the envelope. He really created a literacy language, and the dynamism of his language was something that I tried very hard to get into English.
JEFFREY BROWN: Why don’t you read some just to give us a little flavor of it?
EDITH GROSSMAN: Perhaps I’ll read from the very first chapter, the first part, which explains how Don Quixote became so devoted to the books of chivalry, which were two or three hundred years out of date at the time that Don Quixote was living, that he lost his mind from reading too much.
That’s not something that you and I suffer from. “Our gentlemen became so caught up in reading that he spent his nights reading from dusk until dawn, and his days reading from sunrise till sunset, and so with too little sleep and too much reading, his brains dried up, causing him to lose his mind.
His fantasy filled with everything he had read in his books: Enchantments as well as combats, battles, challenges, wounds, courtings, loves, torments, and other impossible foolishness. And he became so convinced in his imagination of the truth of all the countless grandiloquent and false inventions he read that for him, no history in the world was truer.”
JEFFREY BROWN: So he lost his mind from reading too much.
EDITH GROSSMAN: That’s right. His madness is that he believes that this thing which was fiction, in fact, existed, because the chivalry that influences him is a literacy chivalry and not an actual, historical chivalry.
JEFFREY BROWN: Cervantes was, in a sense, winking at his readership of the time, correct?
EDITH GROSSMAN: In the sense that the novels of chivalry were the reality TV of their day. It was the most popular form in Spain, and everyone read novels of chivalry. It’s what people did with their leisure time. And he simply destroyed the genre by laughing at it, by way of “Don Quixote.”
JEFFREY BROWN: What are you hoping that a new readership of “Don Quixote” will get from it?
EDITH GROSSMAN: Enormous pleasure, and the opportunity, if it’s the first time they’re reading the book, to experience a masterpiece.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Edith Grossman, thank you very much.
EDITH GROSSMAN: Thank you.