On Translation and García Márquez

By Edith Grossman

Speech delivered at the 2003 PEN Tribute to Gabriel García Márquez, held in New York City on November 5, 2003.

Ralph Maheim, the great translator from the German, compared the translator to an actor who speaks as the author would if the author spoke English. A sophisticated and provocative analogy, for it takes into account something that is not always as clear as it should be, at least to many reviewers, whose highest endorsement for a translation tends to be that it is “seamless.” If I may attempt to translate the damnation barely concealed in their faint praise, I think they really mean that the translator has, with proper humility, made herself or himself “invisible,” a punishing goal that is desirable only if we are held personally responsible for the Tower of Babel and all its dire consequences for our species.
Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper. It is an act of critical interpretation. Let me insist on the obvious: Languages trail immense, individual histories behind them, and no two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly. They can be linked by translation, as a photograph can link movement and stasis, but it is disingenuous to assume that either translation or photography, or acting for that matter, are representational in any narrow sense of the term. Fidelity is our noble purpose, but it does not have much, if anything, to do with what is called literal meaning. A translation can be faithful to tone and intention, to meaning. It can rarely be faithful to words or syntax, for these are peculiar to specific languages and are not transferable.
To recreate significance for a new set of readers, translators must make the effort to enter the mind of the first author through the gateway of the text – to see the world trough another person’s eyes and translate the linguistic perception of that world into another language. The better the original writing, the more exciting and challenging the process is. You can be sure that the attempt to enter the mind of García Márquez is as exciting and challenging as the work of a translator gets.
His most recent book, Living to Tell the Tale, is the first volume of a projected three-volume memoir, though I am sure there will be those who insist that it is fiction, as some did, especially in the UK, when News of a Kidnapping was first published and people who should have known better refused to believe that the book was a piece of investigative reporting. The possible reason for their misapprehension is made explicit in Living to Tell the Tale: in a series of fascinating comments, García Márquez makes it clear that he sees little distinction between the practice of journalism and the writing of fiction. This is certainly not a question of his confusing truth and imagination, or reality and fantasy, and it is much more than a clever turn of phrase or thought. Over and over again in the memoir he refers to incidents and situations that are familiar to the reader because they have appeared, transmuted and transported, in the works of fiction. Even more important than events mined from the mother-lode of his experience, however, is the reportorial narrative technique common to both genres in García Márquez’ writing.
He is a master of physical observation: Surfaces, appearances, external realities, spoken words – everything that a truly observant observer can observe. He makes almost no allusion to states-of-mind, motivations, emotions, internal responses: Those are left to the inferential skills and deductive interests of the reader. In other words, García Márquez has turned the fly-on-the-wall point of view into a crucial aspect of his narrative style in both fiction and non-fiction, and it is a strategy that he uses to stunning effect. It not only obliges readers to participate in the narration by placing them up on the wall, right next to the fly, but I believe it is also one of the techniques he employs to abrogate sentimentality, leaving only actions driven by emotions, and sometimes passions.
It is a joy and a privilege beyond the telling of it to translate the profoundly expressive and artful writing of the Maestro. Thank you, Gabo, for your books.

– Edith Grossman

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