Interview: Daisy Rockwell: “Translators can be seen as curators”
International Booker Prize winner Daisy Rockwell on the significance of Edith Grossman, who fought for the right of a translator to be recognised for her work
American translator Edith Grossman, who was best known for her translations of literary classics written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Miguel de Cervantes, passed away on September 4, 2023. In this interview, translator Daisy Rockwell, who won the International Booker Prize last year for Tomb of Sand, her English translation of Geetanjali Shree’s Hindi novel Ret Samadhi, discusses Grossman’s contributions and the legacy she has left behind.
Readers feel deeply connected to their favourite authors, and the deaths of literary heroes usually lead to a number of heartfelt obituaries. It is rare for translators to get this kind of public adulation. Does Edith Grossman seem like an exception?
Edith Grossman translated some major canonical works, such as Don Quixote and Love in the Time of Cholera. In the first case, she reintroduced a classic to readers; and in the second, she created a new classic. Like Constance Garnett, the first translator into English of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, she actually created a canon through her translations. Of course, she was also the first translator in English to actively demand that her name appear on the cover of her works, which raised her visibility and made her work better known.
She was responsible for bringing the fiction of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Miguel de Cervantes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and many other writers to people who read only or primarily in English. What do you make of these contributions in terms of the worlds and life experiences that she opened up for readers around the world?
Many translators can be seen as curators. Translating a single book is an enormous amount of work, even if it is short, or easy, or badly written. Even the top translators are inadequately paid for their efforts. Therefore, when and where they can, translators only translate what they love; what they believe the public should have access to. Edith Grossman chose to translate a remarkable set of works and did it so beautifully that the English-reading world came to adore Latin American literature and seek it out.
In a speech at the 2003 PEN Tribute to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Grossman said, “Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation.” How does this speak to you as someone who translates from Hindi and Urdu into English, has studied Greek, Latin, French, and German, and is currently learning Farsi?
This is exactly right. A common misconception of translation is that it is a simple transfer between two languages. If this were true, Artificial Intelligence (AI) could easily do our jobs. But it can’t! This is because it is unable to read subtext, style, intertextuality, and so on. Your translator is constantly interpreting and commenting on the choices they make. This “tracing paper” misconception leads to an unfortunate tendency in reviews and critiques of translations to believe that what makes a translation good or bad is whether it is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. By this, I mean that reviewers will search for words or phrases that were incorrectly translated, and ignore the overall effect of the translation, as though the translator were a student they had been assigned to grade.
Which of her books have made an impact on you? These could be her literary translations, or her book Why Translation Matters, which Yale University Press published in 2010.
I, like so many others, first read her translation of Love in the Time of Cholera and was simply blown away by the style.
She was known for insisting that publishers put her name on the covers of books that she had translated. Apparently, she had to be pushed into doing so by her lawyer Neal Gatcher. To what extent have you and other translators benefited from her advocacy in this matter? Is it standard practice now, or do translators still have to demand to see their names on the cover?
Things are improving on that front, but we still have to battle for that minimal recognition. The fact that Fitzcarraldo Books would not put the name of Jennifer Croft, International Booker-winning translator of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, on the covers of her books is a prime example of how far we have to go. Croft even launched the #namethetranslator campaign on social media, but her publisher was unmoved (apparently, it would ruin the cover design!). Some publishers now do it automatically, some only do so if the translator is well known (which is rare!), and some still categorically refuse to do it. Many of my translations do not have my name on the cover because they are Penguin Classics. It is against the Penguin Classics style guide worldwide to put the translator’s name on the cover. As Croft puts it, we translators have written every single word in the book, how can you leave us off the cover!
What are the other battles that translators have to fight in terms of advances, credit and compensation, inclusion in marketing efforts, and nomination for literary awards?
The battles are many. Pay is very bad, even for the most successful translators. There are some people who actually make enough money to translate full-time as a profession, but they do not make lots of money and they work exceptionally hard. Translators also have to share with the author. We are like co-authors, so if the work is in copyright, we are most likely getting half the advance (in India, the translator and copyright holder share the advance and royalties 50-50, although this is done differently in other regions).
Translations tend not to be marketed very much in comparison to other books, and translators are often not included in the marketing efforts. If there is a book launch, they are often not invited, for example. As I discussed above, translators are curators. It makes sense to market books by translator as well as by author, because readers will come to trust the taste of their favourite translators and look forward to their books. If you search for a translator on a publisher’s website, you will often find that they have no ‘author page,’ and only show up on individual book listings. A translator could have translated 10 or 15 books for a particular publisher, but have no special author page with bio, photo, etc. In terms of awards, things are improving somewhat, but often the translator is given significantly less prize money than the author.
Chintan Girish Modi is a journalist, writer and book reviewer who tweets @chintanwriting