The Value of Provenance


When [García Márquez] heard that I was going to translate Don Quixote, he said, “Dicen que me estás poniendo cuernos con Cervantes” — “I hear you’re two-timing me with Cervantes.” Brilliant! — Edith Grossman, 2011


Many years ago, about three decades, I guess, I made the decision to stop reading literature in translation.

This decision was made based on two experiences of the time. One was, reading the translator’s introduction to Freud’s book on psychoanalysis. In the introduction, the translator explained that Freud was a compulsive punner, and the essays/lectures are littered with puns in the original German, that cannot be adequately translated into English. This was a “thing that made me go ‘Hmm’,” that what you are reading in the translation is significantly divorced from the original.

The second event parallels the first. It was the translator’s introduction to a novel by a Russian author, in which the same point was made. Many of the words and turns of phrase used by the author, only had significance in the original Russian. Russian readers would recognize them, and “get the joke” in the way the author was expressing himself. Like many writers living under repressive governments, this author was a master of saying one thing when he meant another, and trusting to the reader to “get the joke.”

This caused me to step back, and ask myself, What am I getting in this translation? And the answer, to me, at the time, was, I’m not getting what the author wrote, I’m getting what the translator thinks he wrote, or what the translator thinks he should have written.

It was especially common in early translation efforts, for the translator to act deliberately as a filter and editor, excising text that he (or she) felt was irrelevant or offensive. Early translators of Hugo, Zola, Balzac, Dumas, and others, Bowdlerized the texts for the delicate sensibilities of their English-language readership. They cut “unnecessary” scenes wholesale, to make the novels “move faster.”

Much later, I enrolled in French classes at university, as part of my degree program when I returned to school. I made the decision that I was not particularly interested in learning to speak the language, but I wanted to read and write it. So, as soon as I had some basic grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, I began reading. I asked my mother, a retired teacher of French, what authors would be most approachable, and who I might avoid. Because popular genre novels are generally considered “light reading” in America, I thought they might be a good approach for reading in French.

No, she said, in fact, it’s the opposite. Genre fiction depends a great deal on the assumption that you know the dialects and idiomatic usages of the authors and the times in which they were writing. I found this to be true in a practical manner — I tried to read one of George Simenon’s Inspector Maigret novels and found it impossible to follow. I just couldn’t “get the joke” of the many idiomatic usages in the writing, with my primitive schoolboy French.

In the early 2000s, I was looking for a “vacation beach” book. For reasons that escape me now, I looked at The Count of Monte Cristo. Translations of this novel, like those of so many other novels, have an execrable history. It turns out that many of the “new editions” available from various publishers, are simply updates of an original translation done in the 1840s. In other words, they are not new translations, they are simply modifications of a translation done more than 150 years ago.

Say what? Quite a bit of rooting around, and I found the only truly new translation of the novel was by Robin Buss, for Penguin Classics, in 1996. I bought it. And the first thing I noticed was that it was fully 1/3 larger than the standard “Signet Classic” edition I already had. Yes, if you read a version of The Count in English, and it was only 600-700 pages long, you got a rewrite or reissue of the 1846 translation that hacked out the “offensive” and “unnecessary” passages. The Buss translation could double as a boat anchor, at 1200 pages (of tiny print).

The other aspect of the Buss translation is that it restores the character of the Count to something like its original. The Count of the translation I read as a youth was a heroic figure, who overcame injustice. The Count in the Buss translation is a sociopath who systematically destroys the lives of people who had wronged him. He kills people who had done him no harm, because their deaths will inflict grief on the people who had done him harm. He wants his betrayers to suffer. Only at the very end, after emotionally destroying and then murdering the people on his enemies list, does he show anything like compassion — and it’s compassion that will not be visible to his enemies.

It’s a completely different novel from the one you probably read.


Since that time, I’ve had something of a rapprochement with literature in translation.

Modern translators are more aware of the pitfalls, and spend more time ameliorating the effects of the translation process.

Edith Grossman elucidates the problem well in an interview.

MCS: What makes a book translatable?

EG: I’d like to rephrase that question. I can’t say what makes a book translatable, but I do think that all texts can be translated. The question of whether or not a work is “translatable” stems from a mistaken and widely held notion that a translation is really a one-for-one set of equivalences with the original–a straightforward lexical problem–when in fact it is a rewriting of the first text. Some, of course, are immensely difficult (they’re usually just as difficult in the original) and challenge the translator’s sensitivity to nuance, levels of meaning, and artistic impact in both languages. I see my work as translating meaning, not words.

I add emphasis to the last sentence. This makes sense to me. Of course, much meaning is encased in the original language. When I read Camus’ l’Etranger, during my bout with French literature, I was struck by the rhythm of the language, of the writing, that is completely absent from the translations I had read in my youth. A (good) translator could get much of the story, and the metalanguage of the story, but a translation will never capture that particular usage of language that epitomized Camus.

I think the essential difference is that…and I’m not saying that translators always have to do this, there are reasons for departing a little bit further from a writer’s text where it just won’t work in English. I found on the contrary what really worked better in English was to follow Hugo much more closely than anyone else seems to have done. So I’ve actually followed his syntax as closely as possible, I’ve followed the rhythm of his sentences and I’ve actually broken it up the way he has and stuck more closely to what he says. — Julie Rose, interview, 2009

You have to take that as axiomatic, I believe, when choosing to read literature translated from another language. It’s not the same book, in a different language. It’s not. Now, if you want to put on some airs, you can pretend that this translation or that somehow captures the author’s intent by adhering to some kind of lexical purity in translation. Giving you the words, and making no attempt to convey the meaning. But that’s intellectual posturing, a kind of pathetic snobbery.

It took me thirty years to get around the kind of mental roadblock thrown up by that realization. 1 It was the honesty and firm intellectual ground on which these translators based their work, that brought me around.

So, provenance is important. When I look at a work in translation, the first item to be examined is the translator — who, when, and the goal of the translation. In these times, finding this information can require the dedication of a detective. Audio book publishers are especially bad about concealing the translators of books. It is something, I suspect, that they just don’t consider important. I still don’t read many books in translation. I don’t feel it’s a loss. I have stacks of books written in English, that I never will get through in my lifetime, because they never get any smaller. But, when I do get a hankering to read some particular work, I’m only going to do it if I feel that the translator has held a level of intellectual rigor equal to that of the translators I mention below.

Some translators whose work I’ve investigated and read, and given the Stamp of Approval.

  • Edith Grossman

Her translation of Don Quixote (2003) is now considered definitive; this is another novel that will look completely different to the reader from the version read 30 years ago. And she is also noted for her translations of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Garcia Marquez told an interviewer that he would rather read Grossman’s translations of his novels in English, than the original Spanish. She received the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation in 2006.

  • Tiina Nunnally

Translator of Scandinavian novels, along with her husband, Steven Murray. Her translation of Kristin Lavransdatter, Book III, won the PEN Translation Prize in 2001, and her 1993 translation of Smilla’s Sense of Snow won the American Translators Association’s Lewis Galantière Prize.

  • Julie Rose

Translator of French literature, most famously the new translation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. She has translated around thirty books, won a PEN Medallion for translation; finalist for the French-American Foundation’s translation prize in 2009; won the NSW Premier’s Prize in Australia for her translation.


Tiina Nunnally (Wikipedia)
Interview with Tiina Nunnally (blog)
Steven T. Murray and Tiina Nunnally: On Translating and “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”

Interview with Julie Rose (blog)
Julie Rose on Translation (interview)
Translators for le French Book (Publishers) (Julie Rose)
What Julie Rose Adds to Victor Hugo (interview)
A new translation of Les Miserables (Julie Rose, interview)

The Art of Translation (NPR)

The Making of a Translator: An Interview with Edith Grossman
Edith Grossman Frowns: On the Challenges of Translation in America

  1. It’s not like I didn’t have any useful or valuable reading to do. So many great writers write in English, that one is hardly at a loss for “what’s next.” Here’s a bit of math. If you read a book a week, that’s roughly 50 books a year. In twenty years, you’ll have read around 1,000 books. In a 50-year lifetime of reading, you’ll have read 2,500 books — if you maintain the mark and read 50 books a year. In that perspective, one could never read a book in translation, and hardly dent the library of literature on offer. 

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