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Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Translator Speaks Up For Translations

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NEW YORK — If you're a fan of Gabriel Garcia Marquez or have purchased the latest edition of "Don Quixote," you might know the name Edith Grossman.

You would have seen her listed on the cover of "Don Quixote," right under author Miguel de Cervantes, or recognized her from "Love in the Time of Cholera" and other Garcia Marquez books. You'd be happy to know that she is well compensated, highly regarded and in steady demand.

It's a good life for any writer, but it's especially charmed for the art form Grossman has mastered: translation.

An ancient and invaluable profession, the passport for a given culture's journey abroad, translation has been practiced by literary greats such as Alexander Pope, Ezra Pound and Saul Bellow. Some of the most famous phrases in English, from "Of arms and the man I sing" to "Abandon hope all ye who enter here," are translations.

But the typical translator's status can be likened to a ghost writer's – an appendage obscure and underpaid. Like ghost writers, they often receive flat fees and no royalties. Reviewers often overlook them or faintly praise them – and this drives Grossman crazy – for "ably" translating the original text.

"`Ably translated,' compared to what?" asks Grossman, whose "Why Translation Matters," a brief, forceful defense of her profession, is being released by Yale University Press. "The reviewer clearly doesn't read Spanish. How would they know if it is ably translated? They quote long passages to indicate the style of the writer and never credit the translator."

In an industry well stocked with bad news, few subjects goose the gloom like translation. A commonly cited statistic, from a 2005 report by the research organization R.R. Bowker, notes that just 3 percent of books released each year in the United States are translated from other languages – compared with percentages in the double-digits for books in Western Europe.

Recent Nobel laureates such as Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio and Herta Mueller remain virtually unknown in the U.S., in part because so little of their work appears in English. Other writers celebrated overseas, but not in this country, include Lebanese novelist Rabee Jaber, Vietnam's Ho Anh Thai and the late Uwe Johnson of Germany.

The factors are commercial and cultural. English is the world's most widely read language, so a higher percentage of English-language works in other countries is inevitable. The United States also is far more set apart geographically, reinforcing a resistance that makes getting Americans to read translated works as challenging as getting them to watch films with subtitles.

"It seems that the American public is allergic to certain kinds of books. When people sense somehow that the book is a translation, they think, in a subliminal sort of way, that they don't need to read it," says Daniel Halpern, editorial director of Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins that commissioned Grossman for the "Don Quixote" translation.

"There are whole segments of the publishing business that don't want to get involved with translations; it's a lot of extra work," says publisher Jonathan Galassi of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, which has a long history of releasing works in translation.

"But if all publishers did make 20 percent of their books translations, most of them wouldn't get read. It's not just about publishing a book, it's about publishing for a ready readership."

Translators and publishers disagree whether the market has improved or deteriorated. Grossman has been in the business since the 1970s and says she has seen no noticeable shrinkage. If anything, she believes the industry has become more receptive. She cites publishers such as Archipelago Books and Open Letter Books at the University of Rochester and the translation projects of the PEN American Center.

Susan Bernofsky, co-chair of PEN's translation committee, sees deterioration since the economic crisis began in 2008, a reduced willingness to take chances on foreign-language books. Open Letter publisher Chad Post says that the number of translations isn't necessarily getting smaller, but that fewer are coming from large publishers.

"There's still great international literature coming out, it's just that now it's coming out from the smaller, indie-university presses," Post says. "And the vast majority of these titles don't receive the media attention or bookstore placement necessary to become noticed by mass audiences."

The factors that help most books – publicity, strong reviews, word of mouth – can make best-sellers out of translations. Grossman's "Don Quixote" has sold more than 100,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks around 75 percent of industry sales.

Popular works from other countries also include the literary novels of the late Chilean writer Roberto Bolano, the million-selling thrillers of the late Swedish writer Stieg Larsson and French author Muriel Barbery's surprise hit, the novel "The Elegance of the Hedgehog."

"Novels such as the Scandinavian crime writers or the South American magic realists, for example, compete because they can deliver the same emotional engagement or intellectual stimulation that the best English language works do," says Kent Carroll, whose Europa Editions released "Hedgehog" (translated by Alison Anderson) in the U.S.

"The market pretty much remains what it always had been: You get the one or two breakaway books and you get the majority of books that don't sell any copies at all. And you get some books that sell in the reasonable range of 10-15,000 copies," Halpern says.

Translation can take as long, or longer, as writing the original book. The art, Grossman and others will say, is more than finding the appropriate word. Translation is about words and music, fidelity and feel, the balance between getting too caught up in the literal meaning and improvising so freely that the author's voice is lost entirely.

In "Why Translation Matters," Grossman writes of taking on the opening phrase of the first chapter of "Don Quixote," among the most famous words in Spanish literature: "En un lugar de la Mancha, de cuyo nombre no quiero acordarme," which in an earlier English-language edition was translated into, "In a village of La Mancha, the name of which I have no desire to call to mind."

Grossman worked on the phrase by reciting the Spanish to herself, "mantralike." She reached for the right mood and rhythm, to recapture how it struck those who read "Quixote" centuries ago. She pondered the word "lugar," which can mean either village or place. The words came to her, like lyrics to a song: "Somewhere in La Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember."

Grossman, who turns 74 in March, is curly haired and plainspoken, her voice still flavored by her childhood in a Yiddish-speaking neighborhood in Philadelphia. She had an early interest in languages – although she hardly remembers a word of Yiddish – and by high school was thinking about becoming an interpreter, "which suggested travel, exotic places, important events, world-shaking conferences at the United Nations," she writes in "Why Translation Matters."

She studied as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, where she considered a career as a critic and scholar and was attending graduate school at New York University when a friend who edited the magazine Review asked her to translate a story by Argentine author Macedonio Fernandez. She declined, saying she was a critic, not a translator. Her friend persisted.

"I agreed to translate it, more out of curiosity about its wildly eccentric author and the process of translation than for any other reason," she writes. "I discovered to my surprise that I not only enjoyed the work more than I had imagined but could do it at home, an arrangement that seemed very attractive then, and still does."

The story, "The Surgery of Psychic Removal," was published in 1973. Grossman has since translated many of the leading Latin American writers, including Garcia Marquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Ariel Dorfman and Mayra Montero. Her edition of "Don Quixote," published in 2003, included an introduction by the critic Harold Bloom, who praised the translation as the best yet of Cervantes' 17th-century masterpiece about the knight-errant and his comrade Sancho Panza.

"Grossman might be called the Glenn Gould of translators, because she, too, articulates every note," Bloom wrote.

Every translator has a wish list and Grossman's includes the expansively titled "The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell" by Carlos Rojas, a professor emeritus at Emory who was born in Spain and emigrated to the United States in 1957.

"It is a killer novel," Grossman says. "You have this wonderful construction where hell is an infinite spiral and you're walking along a corridor, with all of these doors, and behind each door is a small theater in which a person is sitting alone, watching his entire life, over and over and over."

For most translators, an English edition of Rojas' novel would be an idle dream. But, says Yale editor-at-large Ileene Smith, "who could resist her passion for an unknown 'masterpiece' of historical and biographical fiction?"

And so Yale has agreed to release Grossman's edition of "The Ingenious Gentleman."

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HarperCollins is owned by News Corp.

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