Edith Grossman, eminent translator of Spanish literature, dies at 87


Edith Grossman, who made the marvels of Spanish and Latin American literature available to English readers through the alchemy of translation, an underappreciated craft that she championed as an art form in its own right, died Sept. 4 at her home in Manhattan. She was 87.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, said her stepson, Kory Grossman.

In the realm of literature, translators have traditionally been relegated to the shadows as “humble, anonymous handmaidens-and men,” in Dr. Grossman’s description, toiling in the service of writers regarded as immortal greats.

Dr. Grossman, one of the foremost practitioners of her profession, was content to play no such role. Taking on such works as “Don Quixote,” she insisted that her name appear on the cover alongside the author’s — Miguel de Cervantes, in the case of that 17th-century landmark of Western literature — and trumpeted the central role of translators in the world of letters.

“Nothing is ‘lost in translation,’” she once said. “Instead, people gain from translations because translations inevitably bring an injection of new possibilities.”

Dr. Grossman, who translated dozens of works of Spanish-language fiction, nonfiction and poetry over the course of her career, was by her own account an indifferent student during her upbringing in Philadelphia. But her imagination was fired by a high school Spanish teacher, who sparked her interest in the language and, eventually, the literature of Spain and Latin American.

The first major test of her powers, published by Knopf in 1988, was an English translation of “Love in the Time of Cholera” by the Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez. When she won the assignment, beating out several other translators for the job, García Márquez had recently been awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. A master of magical realism, he was at the center of a florescence of Latin American literature.

“I thought the closest thing to it was in those large English Victorian novels, brought forward by way of Faulkner,” Dr. Grossman later told U.S. News & World Report, reflecting on the approach she took. “I didn’t use any contractions. I used long sentences.”

Novelist Thomas Pynchon, reviewing the book in the New York Times, described Dr. Grossman as “sensitively, imaginatively attuned” to García Márquez’s voice.

“My Spanish isn’t perfect,” Pynchon wrote, “but I can tell that she catches admirably and without apparent labor the swing and translucency of his writing, its slang and its classicism, the lyrical stretches and those end-of-sentence zingers he likes to hit us with. It is a faithful and beautiful piece of work.”

Perhaps the final judgment on her translation came from García Márquez himself, who turned to Dr. Grossman for translations of his subsequent novels — among them “The General in His Labyrinth,” “Of Love and Other Demons” and “News of a Kidnapping” — as well as his memoir “Living to Tell the Tale” before his death in 2014.

“You,” the author was said to have told Dr. Grossman, “are my voice in English.”

Dr. Grossman was a go-to translator for many other figures in contemporary Latin American letters, among them the Colombian-born writer Álvaro Mutis and Mayra Montero of Cuba. Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa was effusive in his praise for her 1996 translation of his novel “Death in the Andes.”

“It was something that didn’t seem to be a translation of the novel, but something that had been written originally in English,” he told the Library of Congress. “And I think this is the major achievement of a translator: to give the impression that this is not a translation, but something that has been written in the foreign language directly.”

She ventured centuries into the past to translate “Don Quixote,” the epic story of a knight errant and his trusty squire, Sancho Panza, that is often described as the first modern novel. (García Márquez, when he heard of Dr. Grossman’s undertaking, told her on the phone: “So I hear you’re two-timing me with Cervantes.”)

A dozen English translations of “Don Quixote” existed before Dr. Grossman prepared hers. The nearly 1,000-page result, published by Ecco in 2003 with a laudatory introduction by the literary critic Harold Bloom, consumed two years of her working life and was widely regarded as a masterpiece.

“This ‘Don Quixote’ can be read with the same ease as the latest Philip Roth and with much greater facility than any Hawthorne,” Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes wrote in a Times review. “Yet there is not a single moment in which, in forthright English, we are not reading a 17th-century novel. This is truly masterly: the contemporaneous and the original co-exist.”

Dr. Grossman used her stature to elevate the importance of translation, including in a book-length manifesto, “Why Translation Matters” (2010). She called upon the publishing industry to offer the public more translations, which, she noted, for most readers offer the only way into the literature of other countries and cultures. Without translations, she argued, society would live behind an “iron curtain.”

As she spoke out on behalf of her profession, she also did so on behalf of her colleagues, challenging publishers and readers to cease thinking of them as second-class citizens in the world of letters. “Whatever else translating is,” Dr. Grossman insisted, “it is writing.”

She conceded that when, after the intercession of her lawyer, a publisher first put her name on a book cover with the author’s, she felt “uncomfortable.”

But then she was “delighted,” she told the online publication Asymptote. “I thought: It’s bloody well about time that the translator not be treated as a poor relation, that the translator is treated as an equal partner in the enterprise.”

Edith Marian Dorph was born in Philadelphia on March 22, 1936. Her father was a shoe salesman and union activist and later the proprietor of a shoe store, and her mother was a secretary and a homemaker.

Dr. Grossman studied Spanish and Spanish literature at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received a bachelor’s degree in 1957 and a master’s degree in 1959. Some of her first translations, of Spanish poems, were published in the university literary magazine.

She studied in Spain on a Fulbright fellowship before receiving a PhD in Spanish from New York University in 1972.

In the early years of her career, she wrote, she “moonlighted as a translator” while she “sunlighted as a college instructor.” By 1990, she had enough translation work to reverse the roles.

“I thought to sit at home and translate … was more fun than playing with monkeys,” she told the London Observer in a critique of academic life. “I didn’t have to get dressed to go to work. I could smoke all I wanted. And I thought, this is perfect.”

Dr. Grossman was the recipient of many literary awards, including the 2006 PEN/Ralph Manheim Award for Translation. The work of which she was most proud, she said, was her translation of “The Solitudes,” a work of poetry by the 17th-century Spanish writer Luis de Góngora.

She found similarities between translation and marriage and counseled colleagues that, just as they should not marry someone whose company they did not enjoy, they should not translate works they did not like.

Her marriage to Norman Grossman ended in divorce. Besides her stepson, of Teaneck, N.J., survivors include a son, Matthew Grossman of Manhattan, and a sister.

Such was the depth of Dr. Grossman’s communion with Cervantes, she said, that she had come to “dearly love him.”

“I would love to have a meal with him,” she once told NPR. “I’d love to have a couple of drinks with him. I’d like to sit and chat and talk about literature and all of the other things you talk about with someone you’re really very fond of.”


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