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A Tribute to Edith Grossman

Edith Grossman Collage 3

On April 30, the PEN America Translation Committee held a celebration marking the 80th birthday of renowned translator Edith Grossman. The event took place as part of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature, and was hosted by the Cervantes Institute in Manhattan. At this event, many people spoke in praise of Grossman, and Juan José Herrera de la Muela, Consul for Cultural Affairs of the Consulate General of Spain in New York, presented her with the Officer's Cross of the Order of Civil Merit. Edie, as her friends call her, is much admired by everyone at The Center and has taught and spoken here on many occasions and we would like to extend the party by sharing some of the accolades she received at the wonderful event at the Cervantes Institute. Please feel free to join in by adding your own in the comments section. We are very pleased to offer the following tributes to Edie from the event program

A tribute written to be read by anyone beyond the immediate circle of friends, loves, and family always runs the risk of becoming elegiac. And that would be about the worst possible way to talk about Edith Grossman. Aside from her exquisite grasp of nuance, or maybe, indeed, because of it, Edie has the most sensitive bullshit detector known to woman or man, encapsulated in her trademark bilingual expression when something just plain rings false: Dame un break!* 

Speaking plainly, Edith Grossman is a cluster of contradictions: a connoisseur of style with no patience for rhetoric. A sensualist with a ramrod work ethic. An adorable curmudgeon. A citizen of the world who, given her druthers, would rather not leave her house.

So others go to her, as the mountain goes to Mohammed. In these days of skype and texts and virtual relationships, Edie has gathered around her a gaggle of passionate readers of poetry—poetry books!—whose only common traits are love of literature and love of Edie. The enticement that keeps this group of busy, sometimes weary, New Yorkers returning month after month is the sheer pleasure of reading along with her. And drinking lots of red wine.  

Why? Because Edith Grossman is the embodiment of literature, and I mean that quite literally. Douglas Robinson writes about translation as a physical act, as a somatics. He says a poet tastes, and smells, and feels words; that in fact everyone feels words, but only a poet, or a translator, knows how to isolate that feeling and subject it to analysis, understand why it feels the way it does, and set it down—translate it—onto paper. Edith is so deeply sensitive and sensual that I have the sensation that she feels and smells and touches and tastes her way through books in the same way she feels and smells and touches and tastes jazz and dancing and Beethoven and movies and sex and whisky: with every nerve and pore. Oh, and pork. I almost forgot the pork. 

This is the pleasure Edie brings to every endeavor, and every encounter, even the ones that provoke her characteristic “Dame unbreak.” And the pleasure radiates to everyone around her. That’s what keeps her friends coming back each month for more poetry and wine. The pleasure of Edie; the pleasure of the text.

*Pronounced DAH-may oon brake.

—Mary Ann Newman, Translator of Josep Maria de Sagarra(Private Life) et al., Executive Director of Farragut Fund for Catalan Culture in the U.S. 

To my mind and ear, Edith Grossman is the finest translator from the Spanish. That’s why I kept her on the phone until she agreed to translate Don Quixote. It took a while. She said, “I couldn’t possibly.” She said, “It’s too long.” She said, “It’s not contemporary Spanish and I’d have to learn it.” She said, “You can find someone else to do it.” I stayed on the line and told her how much I loved her Márquez translations. That only she could deal with the episodic nature of Cervantes’ great novel. I told her I would not ask anyone else. I asked her to name her price. She refused. I asked her again to toss out a fantasy number and, as I remember it, she threw out some modest figure and I doubled it. She thought I was crazy. You have all read her translation. The only possibly crazy party, as far as I’m concerned, is the wonderful (in Edie’s English) Señor Quixote.

—Daniel Halpern, Publisher and Editor of Ecco Press/HarperCollins, Poet (Something Shining)


I was most pleased when Edith Grossman was chosen to succeed me as Gabriel García Márquez’s translator. I knew that Gabo was in good hands. Right now I muse and ponder and wish I could go back in time and teach Humanities for Columbia once again, for now I could use Edie’s remarkable version of the Quijote as I helped my students dig out the facts and feelings. Back then I had to do so tediously with versions in English worthy of the likes of Avellaneda. Now she has tackled that bugbear Góngora in such a way so as to make the Spanish Golden Age gleam in English. Excelsior! Edie, please accept my forgiveness for carping about your transmogrification of mutton into lamb. Godspeed.

—Gregory Rabassa, Translator of Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitude) et al., Author of If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents

In the summer of 1988, I attended a translation workshop at New York University with Edith Grossman. I’d finished my coursework by then so I couldn’t enroll for credit, but I sat in as an auditor to try and learn what I could about a practice I was already engaged in and becoming more and more committed to. Edie was committed, as well; she let me submit the assignments and looked them over and commented, even though I was only an auditor. She was a powerful presence, somewhat daunting at first, but so down-to-earth and straightforward that she soon put everyone around the table at ease. 

 She was also a brilliant teacher. In one of the initial sessions, she talked us through a paragraph from the novel she was working on—Gabriel García Márquez’s El general en su laberinto. Simón Bolívar wakes up in the morning and gets ready for his day, putting his clothes on, and shaving. That was the tricky part. The general “tried to see himself in the mirror as little as possible, so he would not have to look into his own eyes”—as Edie’s published version puts it—so he walked around the room and finished shaving in a way that the Spanish describes as “a ciegas.” (“Ciego” means blind; “a ciegas” is a standard way of describing doing something without being able to see what you’re doing.)

Edie told us that when she translated the expression as “blindly,” though, the image of the general walking around the room “shaving blindly” took on disturbing connotations the Spanish didn’t have. It seemed to imply that he was in some sort of emotional state or that some risk was being taken (let’s remember it’s the early 19th century and he’s shaving with a straight razor). Furthermore, Edie was under a strict injunction from García Márquez. In his own writing, he refused to use any adverb ending in -mente (the Spanish suffix that makes an adjective into an adverb) and he required his translator, accordingly, to ban all adverbs ending in -ly from the English translation.

She asked us what we would do. None of us could come up with anything that was any good or that obeyed García Márquez’s stricture: “shaving carefully,” “shaving intuitively,” “shaving on instinct,” “shaving without looking,” “shaving with blind motions of his hands”—all terrible solutions! Then, rather pleased with herself—and with very good reason—she unveiled hers: “He finished shaving by touch. . . .”

That moment has stayed with me because it crystallized what I learned about translation from Edith Grossman that summer and have continued to learn from her through years of friendship and collaboration: that the only way to translate is visceral, sensory, dramatic, embodied. Edie taught me that translation is done by touch.

—Esther Allen, Translator of Antonio Muñoz Molina (In Her Absence) et al., Author of Interna-tional PEN Report on Translation and Globalization, Co-Founder of PEN World Voices Festival

During my first travel in the USA, I found in a bookstore an English edition of Love in the Time of Cholera. On the cover was written in big characters: TRANSLATION BY EDITH GROSSMAN. Below, in tiny and sorry letters, it had to admit: written by Gabriel García Márquez. I bought the book. And so far, it is the only novel I have read translated from Spanish. I still remember its elegance among the exuberance of García Márquez’s prose, the way it could make natural in English the historiadas, the percudidos, thecalamidades, and many other concepts, all of them too excessive to exist in any language other than Spanish. For my honor and pleasure, years later, Edith turned out to be my translator. And I have learned from her a few lessons about literature that I would like to share here:

1. Good work comes from a humble attitude: Edith makes questions. She respects an author and wants to know how he understands his own work. That is not as common as it should be. Translators know they must make a readable text in their own languages. Many times, they fear to let authors participate in—and probably disagree with—that work. Edith does not want to miss any detail, and is fearless to challenge her own perceptions (nor to deal with writers’ big egos).

2. I need a translator with sense of humor. Mainly black humor. For Peruvians—and most of Latin Americans—humor has always been a weapon against the painful aspects of reality. And that is clear in my books. But the richer a country gets, the more politically correct its humor becomes. Sometimes in European countries, I have the feeling that readers are not grasping the humor on my books, probably because translators don’t. Unfortunately, there is no handbook for that. It is up to the translator’s ability in reading, and of course, sense of humor. I am happy to declare that Edith understands all the double senses, the nuances and subtleties as an experienced Peruvian.

3. It is important to work with lovely persons. Let’s face it: we’re not getting rich with this business. We do this for pleasure, because money means not so much for us as creating beauty, exchanging interesting ideas or discovering new realities. Edith is a great professional and an amazing reader. But the most important for me, each time I go to New York, is going for lunch with her, always to the same restaurant (because Edith has never left her neighborhood in the XXIst century). There we sit and talk about Miguel de Cervantes, gossip about Nobel Prizes, discuss machismo, flirt with each other, analyze the Palestinian conflict, comment on the latest books and, most of all, have lots of fun. 

Dear Edith: the best thing about working with you is you. I hope to keep that for 80 years more.

—Santiago Roncagliolo, Author of Red April (EG), Hi, This Is Conchita & Other Stories (EG)

After dining with Edie Grossman on many occasions and learning what she was truly passionate about, I commissioned her to translate the works of eight major Spanish poets, whose canonical poems, while familiar to Spanish readers, were largely unknown in English. The book that resulted, The Golden Age or Siglo de Oro,became a transformational work that helped to define for English readers the lyrical, and essentially tragic, beauty of this golden age, one that spanned over three centuries, from the late 1400s, the age of Columbus, right through the late 1600s.

Edie had told me on numerous occasions that it was one of her life’s ambitions, in fact, something of a dream, to render the works of these Spanish Renaissance poets in English: poets, like Jorge Manrique, the fifteenth-century balladeer (who can now ever forget that great elegy for his father?) who had not been translated since Longfellow; or Luis de Argote Góngora, whose sonnets came to define the sound of the seventeenth century, just as they would captivate Picasso 300 years later; or Sor Juana, the a self-taught scholar-turned nun, known as “The Tenth Muse,” whose poetry now lies at the root of Mexican literature; or Francisco de Quevedo, Edie’s favorite, whose lyricism produced metaphysical poems and psalms of overpowering emotion.  

There were just some of the poets she chose to translate in a book we worked on, which then came out in 2006. Throughout our memorable collaboration, I was struck not only by Edie’s inescapable literary genius, but by her courage to tread where others dared not to go. The Golden Age provides then a cogent example of Edith Grossman’s determination to shape our own literary culture, following a tradition begun by her poetic forbears many centuries ago. I’m sorry I cannot be here today, but I feel it’s vital to cite these contributions that have so enriched our culture.

—Robert Weil, Editor-in-Chief and Publishing Director of Liveright, W. W. Norton & Company


Edith Grossman’s marvelous abilities as a translator were apparent from her days as a University of Pennsylvania student. It was there that she translated poems by Juan Ramón Jiménez, there that she was encouraged by her professors (reminding us all how important it is to encourage, especially, the young), and there that her now famous “translator’s intuition” first manifested itself. Her storied career—and milestone birthday—are cause for today’s celebration.

I had the great honor and pleasure of working with Edie on Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz: Selected Works (2014). Watching her give contemporary English voice to a seventeenth-century Mexican poet was witnessing artistry. No news there. What surprised me was how much fun it turned out to be to work with this legendary lady! From how best to render Sor Juana’s wordplay to which redondillas to include and why making day-to-day decisions with Edie was joyful—and never dull.

Here is to more good conversations about parenthood, plants, novels, and complex weather systems. Most of all, my dear friend, here is to you today. Happy Birthday!

—Carol Bemis, Vice President and Editor of W. W. Norton & Company

I have always admired the vitality and passion for literature that lie at the heart of Edie Grossman’s approach to translating. You can see it in the vividness and fidelity of her work. Edie is not a professional, though she is consummately serious about what she does. She is an amateur in the original sense: she loves what she does, and we are all the beneficiaries of her no-holds-barred commitment to her calling. 

—Jonathan Galassi, President and Publisher of Farrar Straus & Giroux, Translator of Giacomo Leopardi (Canti) et al.  


I met Edith Grossman and got to know her through my work in the Department of Literature at the Americas Society—first as an assistant, then as managing editor of Review magazine, finally as Director of the Department of Literature and Editor of Review. My initial contact with Edie was from a distance, by reading her masterful translations of classic works by Latin American writers—beginning with García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera and including many other iconic and emerging writers from the Hispanic literary tradition such as Carlos Fuentes, Mayra Montero, Antonio Muñoz Molina, and Mario Vargas Llosa.  

Our association developed more professionally when I invited her to participate in public literature programs at the Society—including as moderator and translator for a Chilean literature event in 1990; in presentations that included Colombian author Alvaro Mutis—whoseMaqroll novellas she translated so poetically; and in other events over the years, among them a Mexican writers series in which she delivered a fiery reading with poet David Huerta; and a Cuban literature series at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. In 2003 I was proud to present her in a lecture on her lauded translation of Don Quixote; and, some years later, in a conversation with Mario Vargas Llosa after his receipt of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Most recently, she delivered eloquent and personal eulogies to late author Carlos Fuentes and translator Alastair Reid in memorial events for those two giants of Latin American writing.

Outside the Americas Society, Edie encouraged my own translation of Cipango, a seminal poetry collection by Chilean poet Tomás Harris; and, once the book was published in 2010, reviewed it favorably in The American Poetry Review. I’ve also had the opportunity to spend time with her socially—discussing literature, politics, and “times gone by” and to come over bottles of Marqués de Cáceres in her cozy yet spacious apartment; or over a meal of steamed mussels at her favorite restaurant on the Upper West Side. In all of our encounters, she has been at once Edith Grossman the renowned translator, and also just plain Edie, honest and warm, one of the most authentic people I’ve had the good fortune to meet and get to know. It’s an honor to have shared these experiences with Edie, who has been both a mentor and an inspiration as well as a friend. 

Here’s to future collaborations and more good times with her in the years to come!

—Daniel Shapiro, Poet (The Red Handkerchief), Translator of Tomás Harris (Cipango) et al., Editor of Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas


When Edie published her book Why Translation Matters with Yale, I remember talking with her about why, of all the interpretive arts, translation had to defend itself against the insensitive and damaging charges of whether it was even possible. Or not traitorous. No one asks a pianist or a dancer or an actor such a question. We depend on them to illuminate a work and enjoy bringing it to us. We depend on the rigorous work that was done to prepare the interpretation and the delight in performing it. We appreciate the love that is expressed throughout. 

And so it is with Edie’s work. Beside the essay on translation, Yale has published her translation of Carlos Rojas’ The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell: a daring novel that explores the concept of hell with considered elegance even as it is licked by the flames of riot and chaos. Edie mastered the temperature of that book. This fall, we will publish her version of Cervantes’ Exemplary Novels. The fact that this classic text has not seen a complete translation in over a century makes me think that others were intimidated, knowing that Edie had to get around to it someday. With Cervantes, Edie manages a trick of time: we recognize an antique formality that winks at itself without appearing anachronistic. And it’s funny. 

I experienced no ambivalence enjoying these books in English, even while appreciating that the experience in Spanish had to be different. I know in reading an Edith Grossman translation that the text had been cared for with an almost maternal ferocity and an adventurous intelligence: the kind that knows how to find meaning in fidelity and create mischief in managing it. 

 There is a medieval theological sense of the word, “translation” that investigates the rendering of a soul unto heaven without its dying. That, I think, is the masterwork of literary translators as well.

Miles Smith, in the prefatory essay to the 1611 Bible (“The Translators to the Reader”) writes: 

“Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtaine, that we may looke into the most Holy Place; that remooueth the couer of the well, that wee may come by the water, . . . .” It is this sense of being given a privilege, a vantage, sudden sight that the best work delivers. It is probably inevitable that the literal would doubt the gift of translation: it is work that has to be trusted without clinical proof. Theologians and translators are, ultimately, masters of parallel dilemmas.

There is a famous rule known as the Polanyi Paradox which states “we know more than we can tell.” I believe that, in the hands of poets and their translators, we tell more than we can know.

Thank you, Edie, for your friendship and for your work.

—John Donatich, Director of Yale University Press, Author of The Variations: A Novel


In the spring of my second year at Columbia, I ended up taking what turned out to be a transformational course on Comparative Translation with Edie Grossman. The energy in that seminar is one I keep in mind and always try to approximate in the classes I am teaching now.

Edie would bring so much insight, humor, curiosity and care to texts she had probably read a hundred times; by the end of our conversation as a class, though, we’d still feel as if we were able to delight in finding so many new windows and doors into what we were reading—Madame Bovary, The Tin Drum, Pedro Páramo, among others. She was open to that; her openness to finding new possibilities in a text was infectious. (On good to great days, I still feel that way when I am working through the texts I am co-translating now.)

Halfway through that semester, I’d made up my mind to apply for a Fulbright. In the space of only a few weeks, my sense of how I wanted to spend the next year of my life (or the next several) had changed pretty dramatically. I opened my statement of purpose for the grant with an excerpt from Why Translation Matters: 

“As the world seems to grow smaller and more interdependent and interconnected while, at the same time, nations and peoples paradoxically become increasingly antagonistic to one another, translation has an important function to fulfill. . . . Translation not only plays its important traditional role as the means that allows us access to literature originally written in one of the countless languages we cannot read, but it also represents a concrete literary presence with the crucial capacity to ease and make more meaningful our relationships to those with whom we may not have had a connection before. Translation always helps us to know, to see from a different angle. . . . As nations and as individuals, we have a critical need for that kind of understanding and insight. The alternative is unthinkable.”

I was ultimately given the grant (which funded a year’s worth of research and translation in Costa Rica). And for the many people who’ve asked for any pointers about successfully applying for Fulbright Fellowships to fund any projects in literary translation around the world, my only advice is to be sure and quote Edie Grossman.

Through so many of her translations, through the path-breaking book on why translation matters, through the course and through conversations we’ve shared about New York, about pregnancy, about Sor Juana, CIRCUMFERENCE and motherhood, Grossman has so generously helped me to know, to see my life’s work (and my life) and the literature I’ve encountered along the way from so many different angles. Her example, her kindnesses and encouragement, her generosity and warmth mean more to me than she could possibly know. 

Such an honor to celebrate this day with her; she has given us so much to celebrate.

 —Julia Guez, Poet, Translator of Luis Chaves (Equestrian Monuments)

We would like to take special note of Dr. Edith Grossman’s contributions to the life and spirit of Queen Sofia Spanish Institute. The Institute was created to enhance awareness in the United States of the cultural and intellectual life of Spain and Latin America. To succeed, we had to rely on individuals with a unique awareness of both worlds. Edie, of course, was a central figure in that undertaking.

Edie was always a participant herself. Among her magnificent presentations, to mention just a few were: “Translating Don Quijote” (2005); “Luis de Góngora, The Solitudes: Challenging the Prince of Darkness” (2010) and “On the Art of Translation: A Conversation with Edith Grossman” (2007) with foremost Golden Age scholar, Lia Schwarz de Lerner. 

In 2006, the Board and the Cultural Committee of the Institute established a translation prize for the best translation of a work of fiction written in Castilian and published in the United States between 2006 and 2008. The Inaugural prize was given to Dr. Edith Grossman in 2010 for her 2008 translation of Antonio Muñoz Molina’s Manuscript of Ashes

As suggested here, these Institute events often took the form of a conversation between Edie and our guest speakers. As all of us know well, any conversation with Edie Grossman is one of life’s great pleasures. You learn from her and learn from yourself, as Edie elicits new trains of thought, new angles of entry into any subject. Perhaps this has something to do with the translator’s art, finding fresh ways to render what seems obvious to the rest of us. Or perhaps it also has something to do with her lifelong love of the precise improvisations of jazz and poetry. All of her evenings at the Institute were discoveries, and we do, gratefully, treasure her as a colleague, source of inspiration and a good and valued friend.

—Inmaculada de Habsburgo, Former President & CEO of the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute, and Daniel Henninger, Deputy Editorial Page Director of The Wall Street Journal

Dearest Edie, Thank you for talking with me about the A to Zs of translation over the years, for your wise counsel and for your generosity in everything, for your no-nonsense approach to the business of translation and for not budging on certain points, such as #namethetranslator, which benefits us all, and most of all, thank you for proving through your brilliant translations that the so-called impossible is possible in ways beyond imagining. With much love, I wish you all the best on your 80th birthday!  

—Margaret Carson, Translator of Sergio Chejfec (My Two Worlds)et al., Former Co-Chair of PEN America Translation Committee


Back when I was a young teacher of translation workshops at Bard College in the early aughts, I heard one day that translation luminary Edith Grossman would be lecturing at Williams College, a ninety minute drive away. In accordance with the principles “always do what’s best for your students” and “follow your heart,” I packed my car full of undergraduates and hit the road. This was several years before she gave the series of lectures at Yale that would turn into her book Why Translation Matters, but she was obviously already percolating the ideas that would produce those talks, and my students and I came home tingling with inspiration. What excited us most was her insistence that the translator was a writerin English—a writer who must use artistry, analytic thought, and the ability to intuit via analogy to create a great work in English capable of standing in for a work written in some other tongue.

 Now, over a dozen years later, I have the great privilege of teaching side-by-side with Edie in the Writing Program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts, where her courses on literature in translation have long been a favorite with the MFA students. She teaches seminars with titles like “Fictional History,” “The Genius of García Márquez,” “What We Talk About: Fiction in Spanish About Love,” and “Writers You Should Know More About.” Because she has now analogied dozens and dozens of books gorgeously into English, her reading lists are always filled with works in her own translation that she invites her students to explore both from the outside in, and from the inside out. Listening to her stories about a life lived well in the service of literature is always a joy. I am so grateful to Edie for all she has given us and all she continues to give.

—Susan Bernofsky, Translator of Jenny Erpenbeck (The End of Days) et al., Director of Literary Translation Program, School of the Arts MFA Writing Program, Columbia University

 Meeting Edith Grossman for the first time, I thought she was a volcanic beauty. Her burning eyes made it clear to me I was in the presence of not just a very hot number but a very intense intellect. Plus, how she used words when she spoke. Plus, her anti-poetic sense of humor. This was in 1974—back in the day, as she would say—at one of the wonderful receptions held at the old and elegant Center for Inter-American Relations (now called the Americas Society). The Center was a great meeting place for writers and translators during the Boom years. I was at the time a young translator of Latin American poetry, eager to meet fellow translators.

Edie and I clicked right away, and so a friendship of many years began. We first talked about poetry and translation and Spanish red wine. We still talk about these things—and a whole lot more. How lucky I am to have such a brilliant friend. She challenges me; she keeps me mentally alert. She encourages me to keep going. And beyond me, how lucky the English-speaking world is to have her brilliant translations that have taken us to so many incredible places and on such great human adventures. Edith Grossman has earned this tribute on the occasion of her 80th birthday and appropriately as part of PEN’s World Voices Festival, there’s no question about it.

With my gratitude for her being just who she is, I cheer Edie now—our translator supreme, whose eyes continue to burn, and whose work continues, enriching us all, supremely.

 —Jonathan Cohen, Translator of Ernesto Cardenal (Pluriverse) et al., Author of A Pan-American Life (Muna Lee), Editor of William Carlos Williams’ By Word of Mouth: Poems from the Spanish