The legendary Edith Grossman passed away earlier this year. Below, Lilit Žekulin Thwaites remembers her unforgettable encounter with the American literary translator.
2014, Manhattan, and I’m knocking on the door of the apartment where Edith Grossman lives. Incredible! On the advice of someone I recently got to know at the OMI Translator-Author residency, here I am—a stranger from faraway Australia, armed with a bottle of her favourite tipple, a gift from my home country, and a list of do’s and don’ts. Spot on with the tipple; the small gift turned into an annual December offering; do’s and don’ts unnecessary, as it turned out.
“Call me Edie,” she says by way of welcome, as she ushers me into her lovely apartment. “It’s a bit dark,” she apologises. “They’ve been doing repairs to the outside of the building for what seems like an eternity, and the scaffolding doesn’t allow in the usual amounts of natural light.”
But let me backtrack a little.
To anyone working in the area of literary translation and/or contemporary Spanish and Latin American literature, Edith Grossman is a standout, a star, a name that instantly reverberates. Her translations are always at the top of the “highly recommended” list prepared for students, colleagues and friends alike. Gabriel García Márquez (who famously described her as his voice in English), Mario Vargas Llosa, Mayra Montero, Ariel Dorfman, Sor Juana Inés de Cruz, Carlos Rojas—Edie has translated works by all of them. And that’s only a few of the Latin American writers she’s translated. From Spain, you can’t go past Cervantes, of course (Don Quijote, Exemplary Novels), Góngora’s The Solitudes, Carmen Laforet’s Nada and Antonio Muñoz Molina’s A Manuscript of Ashes.
But there is so much more to Edith Grossman than her translations. Go to any good bookshop, and you’ll find Edith Grossman’s translations on the shelves, with her name prominently displayed on the front cover. Up-front recognition for translators was one of several campaigns Edie waged on behalf of literary translators (seemingly from Day One), alongside the need for a fair remuneration. She also firmly believed in, and lobbied publishers for, more literary translations generally because, as she argued in her masterful 2010 book Why Translation Matters, literary translation enables us “to see from a different angle, to attribute new value to what once may have been unfamiliar. As nations and as individuals, we have a critical need for that kind of understanding and insight.” Never more so than today! I would think that just about every literary translator has her book on their shelf, and it’s on the required reading list for students of almost every academic working in the area.
Edie was also an engaging speaker, and a good friend and strong supporter of fellow translators, both established and emerging—something to which I can attest personally—though she usually did it discreetly. And she always made perfectly clear why she couldn’t oblige, if that happened to be the case.
But back to 2014.
One of my personal missions—apart from picking her brains regarding potential publishers, translator contracts and a host of other “from-the-Antipodes-and-relatively-new-at-the-game” questions—was to try and persuade her to come out to Australia as an invited guest speaker. I had been warned by my OMI friend that my mission was doomed from the start: “Good luck with that one! Edie doesn’t travel; in fact, Edie can rarely be persuaded to leave NYC!” How right he was. A trip to Australia was appealing on an intellectual and imaginary level, but despite my best efforts, and as had been predicted, it never eventuated.
That aside, I left Edie’s apartment inspired to keep hunting for my next translation contract, to keep translating and pitching samples and reports to publishers in the English-speaking world, to improve and maintain my networks, to create a personal website, to apply for residencies even if there was no specific suggestion that translators should apply, to keep searching for grants and subsidies for translations… The only piece of advice I haven’t pursued as yet—you have to be at least half as well-known as a translator “out there” as Edie—is to have an agent and a lawyer to look after my interests when dealing with publishers and contracts. Oh, and my list of authors and contacts is just a fraction as long as Edie’s, but I’m working on it!
So, muchísimas gracias for that wonderful day, Edie! I’m sure that by now, you have not only re-established contact with Gabriel, Miguel, Sor Juana, Luis and all your other authors and friends, but are happily sharing words and stories over meals and drinks, and all presumably without having to travel anywhere to do so. Disfruta, querida amiga, y descansa en paz!