Why Translation Matters
By Edith Grossman
Yale University Press, 2010, 160 pages
ISBN 10: 0300126565
ISBN 13: 978-0300126563
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - April 12, 2010
Edith Grossman, a translator of many important literary works, including Cervantes' Don Quixote, delivered much of this very fine, easy to read, and informative book as lectures at Yale University. She points out that translations make it possible for people to gain knowledge from other cultures and a wide number of thinkers. She deplores that many publishers diminish the value of translators by hardly mentioning them and reviewers who altogether ignore that the volume is a translation. She bewails that while fifty percent of all books in translation published world-wide are translated from English, English-speaking people are deprived of what they should know because only six percent of foreign language books are translated into English.
In chapter 2, Grossman tells us about the two years she took to translate Don Quixote, the things she had to consider and the things she had to do. Should she read all the English translations of the masterpiece? Should she study the scholarly literature about the book? Should she consider the different scholarly views about various passages and add footnotes? Should she approach her translation of this four hundred year old classic as he handled the modern Latin writers that she usually translated?
In chapter 3, she discusses how she and others handle translating poetry, and offers many examples. How does a translator capture the rhyme and rhythm of the original, its emotions, and its images, images from another country and, possibly also, a different time.
Grossman is certainly correct. Good translators make significant contributions to every book they translate. In fact, some translations are a lively duet between the original author and his or her translator. The great philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), for example, who spent a decade composing his book on philosophy and was careful in selecting every word, told his translator, who rendered his Guide of the Perplexed from its original Arabic to Hebrew, not to translate his philosophical masterpiece literally. He wrote to him:
The translator who proposes to render each word literally and adhere slavishly to the order of the words and sentences in the original, will meet much difficulty and the result will be doubtful and corrupt. This is not the right method. The translator should first try to grasp the sense of the subject thoroughly, and then state the theme with perfect clarity in the other language. This however, cannot be done without changing the order of words, putting many words for one word, or vice versa, and adding or taking away words, so that the subject be perfectly intelligible in the language into which he translates. (Translated by Leon D. Stitskin in his Letters of Maimonides, Yeshiva University Press, New York, 1977.)
Maimonides' use of translations proves Grossman's point about the need for translations to acquire information, for without being able to read translations, Maimonides probably would not have known enough to write his famous philosophical book. Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed is based in large part upon the Greek Aristotle's philosophy. However, Maimonides did not know Greek, the language Aristotle used. Maimonides' knowledge of Aristotle's philosophy came from the translations of the Greek into Arabic, a language he understood.
Grossman focuses primarily on novels and poetry, and not on philosophical writings, such as those by Maimonides. However, her thoughts, as can be seen in the above quote, apply to all literature. They also apply to the Bible.
Most of the millions of people who read the Bible forget that the Scripture they read is a translation from the Hebrew in regard to the Torah, and the Greek or, according to some scholars, from Aramaic to Greek to English, for the New Testament. They fail to realize that what they are reading frequently, indeed very frequently, is different than what is in the original.
For example, should the opening words of the Torah be translated "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth," as most translations render the Hebrew words, even though the heaven and earth were not the first creations, as can be seen in the next sentences. Or should the Hebrew be translated "In the beginning when God created the heaven and earth," as the eleventh century French commentator Rashi insisted; the later indicating that heaven and earth were not the first creation.
Or take another example, the noun "Lord" as another name for God is well-known, but the fact is that "Lord" is not the name in the text. The Torah has the Tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God. When the Bible was translated for the first time, from Hebrew into Greek in about 250 BCE for Jews living in Egypt who spoke Greek, in a work called the Septuagint, the translators felt it was inappropriate to render God's name into Greek, so they substituted the word "Lord." Most future translations continued this practice. As a result, readers of the Hebrew Bible in translation are reading what the Bible does not say.
Grossman's book is important. It raises our consciousness to the role and contributions of translators and how we need to respect their efforts and encourage publishers to use them much more frequently.