Edith Grossman, who elevated the art of translation, dies at 87
By Rebecca Chace
Edith Grossman, whose acclaimed translations of “Love in the Time of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez and “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes raised the profile of the often-overlooked role of the translator, died last Monday at her home in New York. She was 87.
The cause was pancreatic cancer, her son Kory Grossman said.
An earthy, tough New Yorker who was known as “Edie,” Grossman dedicated herself to translating Latin American and Spanish authors at a time when literary translation was not considered a serious academic discipline or career.
Translators had long been seen as the “humble Cinderella” of publishing, she said in an interview for this obituary in 2021. But as she wrote in her groundbreaking book “Why Translation Matters” (2010), she saw the role “not as the weary journeyman of the publishing world, but as a living bridge between two realms of discourse, two realms of experience, and two sets of readers.”
Grossman was among the first to insist that on any book she translated, her name appear on the cover along with that of the author, a practice that publishers had traditionally resisted for both financial and marketing reasons. They liked to think that they could wave “a magic wand” and turn a book from one language into another, she joked in the interview. “And no human is involved. No human who needs to be paid?”
When her translation of “Don Quixote” appeared in 2003 — with her name on the cover along with that of Cervantes — it elevated not only her own career but also helped raise the stature of literary translation. Her “Don Quixote,” published by a HarperCollins imprint, became widely admired as the definitive English version, and she went on to inspire a new generation of translators.
“Though there have been many valuable translations of ‘Don Quixote,’” critic Harold Bloom wrote in an introduction, “I would commend Edith Grossman’s version for the extraordinarily high quality of her prose.”
Grossman believed that translation was a creative act undertaken in harmony with the author, the way an actor speaks the lines of a playwright. This view of translation reflected her own method, which she described as an auditory process.
“I think of the author’s voice and the sound of the text, then of my obligation to hear both as clearly and profoundly as possible,” she wrote in “Why Translation Matters,” “and finally of my equally pressing need to speak the voice in a second language.”
Her technique helped make her one of the most sought-after translators of Latin American literature in the 1980s and ’90s. She was among those who gave English-language readers access to the works of Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, Laura Esquivel and others who were writing in an entirely new genre known as magical realism.
Grossman became García Márquez’s preferred translator after an agent who lived in her building on Manhattan’s Upper West Side asked her one day, “Would you be interested in translating García Márquez?”
“Are you kidding me?” she recalled responding.
She sent in a 20-page sample of how she would translate García Márquez’s masterwork “Love in the Time of Cholera,” which was originally published in Colombia in 1985, and thus began her lifelong collaboration with him, a Nobel Prize-winning author whose work she found both exhilarating and challenging. Her English version was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1988.
Translating him, she said in the interview, “was like doing an intense crossword puzzle.”
He later paid her the ultimate compliment, telling her, “You are my voice in English.”
Grossman was born Edith Marion Dorph in Philadelphia on March 22, 1936. Her father, Alexander Dorph, was a shoe salesperson and union organizer who eventually owned his own shoe store. Her mother, Sarah (Stern) Dorph, was a secretary and homemaker.
It was Grossman’s high school Spanish teacher, Naomi Zieber, who inspired her to major in Spanish at the University of Pennsylvania, and she started doing translations as an undergraduate.
She received her bachelor’s degree in Spanish language from Penn in 1957 and her master’s in Spanish literature in 1959. She spent a year in Spain as a Fulbright scholar in 1962 and two years at the University of California, Berkeley, before returning to New York to earn her doctorate in Latin American literature at New York University in 1972.
While a graduate student at the start of her teaching career, Grossman encountered a bias against women in academia.
“I had a professor who once said to me: ‘You know you’re taking the space of somebody who’s going to go on in the field, and you’re just going to get married and have kids,’” she recalled to the online magazine Asymptote in 2019. She added, “I told him, ‘You have no way of knowing what I am going to do.’”
Her phone kept ringing with translation work, and by the 1970s she decided to step away from the academic track and try translating full time.
“What you lose in financial security you gain in intellectual independence,” she said in the 2021 interview.
The gamble paid off.
As her reputation grew, Grossman accepted part-time teaching positions at NYU, Columbia University and other colleges in the New York area but spent most of her career working as a translator.
It took two years to translate “Don Quixote,” but she derived enormous satisfaction from it. “Going to the 17th century with Cervantes was like going there with Shakespeare,” she said. “Sheer joy.”
Grossman’s many honors and awards included the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for Translation; the Arts and Letters Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; and the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Civil Merit awarded by King Felipe VI of Spain.
Her marriage to Norman Grossman, a musician, in 1965 ended in divorce in 1984. In addition to her son Kory, she is survived by another son, Matthew, and a sister, Judith Ahrens.