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Edith Grossman’s Translation of Gabriel García Márquez without “-ly”

December 4, 2012

Edith Grossman compromises, and contradicts, and does all the wonderful things good translators of good literature must do when they are asked to promote a particular theory of translation that gets at how they practice translation. So this is, in part, what I was hoping to show in “A Translated Stew of ‘Griefs and Sorrows’.”

In this post, I’d like to give more examples. For instance, to an interviewer not long ago, Grossman asserts:

I see my work as translating meaning, not words.

Nonetheless, her work has been the translation of words as the example of Cervantes’s Don Quioxte shows.

One of Grossman’s most important confessions, I believe, is the one she makes to the same interviewer; Grossman must declare (in her interview with Maria Cecilia Salisbury) the following:

general rules [of translation] cannot be applied in an invariable way.

And when deciding to take on the translation of El amor en los tiempos del cólera, that famous novel by Nobel Prize-winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, she heard from him directly. He was very explicit to her about not only his words but also his literary forms. He was very directive about the forms he avoids and the sorts of forms she, likewise, would do well to avoid.

And so she recalls something interviewer Adriana V. López has noted, quoting Grossman:

“I knew this Colombian writer was eccentric when he wrote me saying that he doesn’t use adverbs ending with -mente in Spanish and would like to avoid adverbs ending in -ly in English.” She remembers thinking, what do you say in English except slowly? “Well, I came up with all types of things, like without haste.”

And so we all notice.  Gabriel García Márquez, in El amor en los tiempos del cólera, has refused for his own literary form reasons not to use the word precipitadamente.  Instead he writes, he prefers his readers to read, the phrase más de prisa.

And Edith Grossman, in Love in the Time of Cholera, has so refused for her own literary translation practice not to use the word hastily.  Instead she writes, she has chosen for her readers to read, the phrase “with more haste.”


Could Grossman not have honored Marquez since she’s in theory not into translating words but more their meanings?  Well, of course.  But then again, Grossman is a good literary translator in practice and also in the not-always-consistent theory she promotes.

Might translators of the Bible be as good?

13 Comments leave one →
  1. December 4, 2012 3:46 pm

    Interesting question at the end. But a few points:

    1. Márquez’s rule makes sense only because Spanish is quite closely related to English, and the English adverbial suffix -ly (not common Germanic I think) is most likely a calque from the French suffix -ment, obvious related to the Spanish -mente. It would make no sense to apply such a rule between less closely related languages, especially as many have no specific adverbial suffix.

    2. The reason behind Márquez’s rule is presumably that -mente sounds clumsy in Spanish. It certainly leads to some long and clumsy words like “precipitadamente” That by no means implies that -ly is clumsy in English, and I don’t think anyone would say that “hastily” is clumsy. Grossman was right to judge Márquez “eccentric” for trying to impose a rule like that in a language which is not his own. Really only a mother tongue speaker can make this kind of stylistic judgment about a language.

    3. It is certainly good to honor the author’s intention concerning style etc, as far as that is known. In this case, it is known. But in the case of the Bible we know nothing of stylistic intentions other than what is in the text we see. Even if we observed that a particular biblical author does not use a particular Greek or Hebrew construction, we can never be sure that this was deliberately avoided for stylistic reasons, as it might have not been used for other reasons e.g. local dialect. It would be wrong to use that as a reason to find some roughly comparable construction to avoid in the target language.

  2. December 4, 2012 4:22 pm

    You make three astute points (per my single question at the end). I’ll think about these for a long time, I’m sure. But let me offer some quick replies now while I have a few moments:

    1. Even if Márquez didn’t know what he was doing, or couldn’t explain it to Grossman as he has, doesn’t mean that his eccentric pattern couldn’t be observed. Corpus linguists look for such odd patterns and might have discovered running through the body of this Spanish novelist’s works that he did without adverbs ending with -mente. I think the readers of the Bible — especially the good ones such as Robert Alter — note regular peculiarities in the written Hebrew of Torah. It’s not a language particularly close to either modern Spanish or our contemporary English for novels, we would all agree. And yet there’s something to compare, says Alter:

    “[My] conclusion is that the Hebrew of the Bible is a conventionally delimited language, roughly analogous in this respect to the French of the neoclassical theater: it was understood by writers and their audiences, at least in the case of narrative, that only certain words were appropriate for the literary rendering of events.”

    And so as an English translator of the Five Books of Moses, Alter sets out to reflect the “vernacular syntax and grammar” not of demotic spoken Hebrew but of the literary counterpart in this part of the Hebrew scriptures.

    2. We would hope that Grossman would have dialogued enough with Márquez to be able to judge him eccentric. It’s surely not only because of this one little (or isn’t it really a rather big) request?

    3. I don’t know that translators can judge intention, even when the original author might try to express such. If a Robert Alter or a corpus linguist can deduce a pattern of a writer (whether of biblical Aramaic, Hebrew, or Hellene), then I think that’s only half of the issue. The other is whether and/ or how then to render such into English (or whichever other language).

    But the point is not trying to assume that particular forms are always only beneath or beside or beside the fact of meaning. Especially when there is or might be marked language, as wordplay, then the translator does best trying to get at that (in both languages, the one translated from and the one translated to). Phyllis A. Bird, who helped translate the NRSV, has said in her book Missing Persons and Mistaken Identities: Women and Gender in Ancient Israel:

    It is not the translator’s duty to make her audience accept the author’s message, or even identify themselves with the ancient audience, except in the sense that any literary work invites identification with its subjects. I am not certain that the translator is even obliged to make the modern reader understand what is overheard. Much of an ancient work may remain enigmatic and uncomprehended because the experience and thought world of the ancient audience is foreign (as we recognized when we encounter such terms or usages as firmament, leprous houses, teraphim, or bride price).

    That sort of humble acknowledgment of the need to listen in and overhear — and that high commitment to rendering a text as meaning but also as form — seems to produce wonderful translators such as Alter, Bird, and Grossman.

  3. December 4, 2012 11:43 pm

    Peter, regarding your point 2: I don’t think the -mente suffix sounds particularly clumsy in Spanish, and I expect that to native speakers it sounds even less so, due to its familiarity as a morpheme.

    I can imagine deliberately choosing to avoid using the -ly suffix in English because it is a quick & dirty way to turn almost any adjective into an adverb, and because it makes all such words partial rhymes. This makes words that are completely opposite in meaning, for instance quickly and slowly, sound somewhat similar; whereas “with great speed” and “with great deliberation” sound very different from each other.

  4. December 5, 2012 8:07 pm

    But in the case of the Bible we know nothing of stylistic intentions other than what is in the text we see. Even if we observed that a particular biblical author does not use a particular Greek or Hebrew construction, we can never be sure that this was deliberately avoided for stylistic reasons, as it might have not been used for other reasons e.g. local dialect. It would be wrong to use that as a reason to find some roughly comparable construction to avoid in the target language.

    I do not agree that it is an error to attempt to infer stylistic features in the source text and try to reproduce them in the target language. For example, Hebrew poetry has definite stylistic features: e.g., parallelism, use of acrostics, etc. It is possible to paraphrase Hebrew poetry in such a way that parallelism is eliminated (and Eugene Peterson has done this), but it definitively changes the features of the text — and I would argue that it does so for the worse. I think that most would agree with me on this point.

    Similarly, one can point to the strong rhythm of Hebrew; rhythm that, for example, the King James Version is attentive to (albeit sometimes with somewhat different English rhythms). One could argue that a possible explanation of the Hebrew rhythm was an incidental feature of the local dialect (along the lines of Cockney English rhythm), but it is a distinctive feature of the language.

    Now, I readily agree that this in many cases leads to tensions and difficulties (an issue that translators of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid often struggle with) and yet, we can admire the artistry of translators who are able to reproduce the effect. This is particularly true to the degree one considers the Bible (or Homer, Virgil, Ovid, etc.) to be both written and oral literature.

    So, what distinguishes stylistic features that most agree should be preserved in translation (e.g., parallelism in poetry) and those that you do not feel are particularly important to preserve in translation (e.g., rhythm)? (Please accept apologies in advance to the extent I have put words in your mouth — if my examples of parallelism and rhythm do not match your views, please feel free to put in your own examples.)

  5. December 5, 2012 10:19 pm

    Theophrastus, I would put features like parallelism and rhythm in a different category from something like artificially avoiding a certain construction. The major difference is that these are things which can be discerned reliably from the original language text. They are also features which can be readily appreciated across language barriers, even if they are not easily reflected in translation. Thus, for example, if someone read out a poem in Hebrew, listeners could recognize its rhythm without understanding a word of Hebrew.

    I would suggest that parallelism should be preserved in a translation when this would not be completely misunderstood by the target audience. It would also be good to preserve rhythm in the translation if this can be done without sacrificing accuracy and clarity, but as you say “this in many cases leads to tensions and difficulties” – indeed probably in all cases where the audience is not highly sophisticated with some understanding of the original language. There may also be a case for introducing more or less functionally equivalent features e.g. rhyme instead of acrostic structure. But, at least for Bible translation, I would want to put accuracy and clarity first.

  6. December 5, 2012 10:41 pm

    at least for Bible translation, I would want to put accuracy and clarity first.

    Is the main reason you want accuracy and clarity first for translation of the Bible because we can’t know the author’s intentions when there’s biblical wordplay? Your three questions, which obviously have a few of us thinking (and me still a considerable amount of thinking), seem to try to separate the Bible from other literature or at least other contemporary literature where the author is alive to declare eccentric moves with language. Do you see the Bible and also other ancient literature to be in special need of “accuracy and clarity first” in translation? I guess I can try to ask that another way too: Is Grossman not putting accuracy and clarity first when she decides that eliminating -ly is just a fine thing to do in Love in the Time of Cholera?

  7. December 5, 2012 11:04 pm

    No, J.K. The main reason I want accuracy and clarity first for translation of the Bible is because I believe it is more than just a work of literature, it is God’s word giving his instructions for living in this world. When translating an instruction manual, accuracy and clarity have to take priority. Any literary features which might be discerned can be ignored, not least because they were probably anyway not part of the author’s deliberate intention.

    Now I am not claiming that the Bible is just an instruction manual, and so I am not suggesting that literary style should be ignored in Bible translation. It is to some extent possible, without compromising accuracy and clarity, to reflect style in a translation and even to include “eccentric” features like avoiding adverbs ending in -ly. But I think a translator should only do strange things like that if there is good evidence that it reflects something the author really intended.

  8. December 6, 2012 3:49 pm

    But I think a [Bible] translator should only do strange things like that if there is good evidence that it reflects something the [biblical] author really intended.

    Thanks for your reply, Peter. I follow, and agree with, your assertion that with the Bible it’s “possible, without compromising accuracy and clarity, to reflect style in a translation and even to include ‘eccentric’ features.” But I’m not sure the intent of the author is anything any translator must rely on (and in the case of Bible translation, as you point out, it’s absolutely impossible for the translator to know the author’s intention.)

    Two cases should make clear that stylish (even eccentric) features can be translated without knowing the author’s or authors’ intent(s).

    First, the Hebrew Bible.

    It’s a fact that a number of English translators (Alter, Nyland, the ESV team, to name some) look to the Greek Septuagint as a window into the Hebrew. More than that, at least one translator, namely Robert Alter, actually uses the Greek to correct the Hebrew Masoretic Text. Granted, his work of “corrective” English translation is not necessarily the work of translating style features. But the point is that Alter cannot know the intentions of the Hebrew authors. This fact does deter him from translation. Likewise, he cannot be sure of the Septuagint translators’ intents either. Intention of an author of the Hebrew Bible must be quite beside the point of translation in all of these cases:

    “The Septuagint reading has a slight advantage of syntactic completeness” (fn on Genesis 27:6)

    “The Masoretic Text is not really intelligible at this point, and this English version [of mine] follows the Septuagint for the first part of the verse” (fn on Genesis 49:26)

    “In my own translation [of 1 and 2 Samuel], I have resorted to the Septuagint … because careful consideration in many instances compelled me to conclude that the wording in the Masoretic Text was unintelligible or self-contradictory.”

    “The Masoretic Text lacks these words, but the next phrase, ‘all the LORD’s bounties,’ preceded by the accusative particle ‘et, clearly requires a verb, and the appropriate verb is reflected in the Septuagint” (fn on I Samuel 12:7).

    “…the Septuagint corrects this” (fn on Psalm 91:2)

    “The Masoretic text says ‘in his death,’ bemoto, which is problematic theologically and perhaps grammatically as well. The translation [into English therefore] follows the Septuagint and the Syriac, which read betumo, ‘in his innocence’” (fn on Proverbs 14:32b)

    “The translation [of mine] adopts the Septuagint here … instead of the Masoretic [Text]” (fn on Psalm 19:27)

    Then there are literary types, such as C. S. Lewis, who in his Reflections on the Psalms sees “second meanings” beyond the author’s first intent. Lewis finds these so compelling that he spends two full chapters in this one book on the issue of second meanings. Writers, he points out in one example after another, do not and cannot intend only one thing. Lewis moves from the Psalms to the gospels.

    Second, the gospels.

    Now, Lewis doesn’t say this but I think he’d agree: the gospel writers put written Greek words into the mouths of Jesus and all other characters in their stories. Thus, there’s not only a translation of the spoken words, presumably Hebrew Aramaic in most cases, but there’s also the transposition of words that are spoken. There’s a change of language, and there’s also a change of modality. When Jesus tells his stories, fables, and parables, then the characters therein have their own intentions. So whose intention gets translated by the English translator of the gospel finally? I’m really not asking a trick question. What I am trying to point to is that Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John all have their own respective intents. Then, when Jesus is speaking, he also has an intent. That spoken intent is mediated, of course, through the intent of the writers of the gospels. Further mediated are the intents, respectively, of the characters of the stories of Jesus.

    I’ve posted a series on the odd gospel Greek (i.e., the Greek of the Gospel of John), as you know. And you yourself had to speculate in several comments after this post the various possible different intentions of the likes of Jesus speaking (accented regional Semitic language of one sort or another), of the Samaritan woman, of John the narrator using Greek, and of Willis Barnstone the English translator of the Greek. If one must translate John’s Greek, then must one know Jesus’s intent as well as John’s? Are the intents always in concert? And even if they are might there be the second meanings or the corrections by one of the other? Does not really knowing the author’s intent for any given form of language in the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament prevent one from translating such a form?

  9. December 6, 2012 5:03 pm

    J.K., I realise that we can very often only speculate on the author’s intention. But if our task is to translate a text, biblical or other, we have to write something, and so we are forced to speculate to some extent. However, no translator is forced to use the kinds of “eccentric” features we are discussing. So, I would suggest, they should not use them unless their significance is more than speculative.

    As for using LXX in translating the Hebrew Bible, this is something that nearly every translation, mainstream as well as individual, has done at times, especially where “The Masoretic Text is not really intelligible”. But it is dangerous, because most likely in places the LXX translators were speculating just as we must, and without the benefit of modern linguistics to guide their interpretation of obscure Hebrew. I’m sure that in places the same kinds of error have been made that Suzanne has noted in the rendering of “Leviathan”. Indeed if any English version based on the Hebrew has rendered Job 3:8 with “great whale”, it has demonstrably committed this same error.

  10. December 6, 2012 6:10 pm

    The decision to translate “eccentric” features of a text need not be forced. What I’m hoping you’ll clarify is why the author’s intention is essential and necessary. There are other factors to consider when deciding what to bring over from one language to another. The LXX translators didn’t seem to know what to do with לויתן (lebyathan) in the Psalms and in Isaiah and in Job, but never did they merely transliterate. Mostly, it was δρακ* (from which we get our English “dragon”), but just for 3:8 of Job was it κῆτος (something like “whale”). My favorite English translation of this Hebrew word is from Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke, who for Psalm 74:14 has this –

    Thou crusht that monsters head
    Whom other monsters dread,
    And soe his fishy flesh did’st frame,
    To serve as pleasing foode
    To all the ravening brood,
    Who had the desert for their dame.

    Contrast this with what Robert Alter has both in his less-playful translation and in the footnote that explains where the Hebrew eccentric wordplayful form has been lost in his less-playful translation. Alter translates:

    You crushed the Leviathan’s heads,
    …………………..You gave him as food to the desert-folk.

    His note offers:

    If the plural in our text is authentic, the poet would be alluding to a tradition in which Leviathan is a many-headed monster (not part of its depiction in Job). There is an a fortiori logic in this poetic use of the Canaanite myth: If God is powerful enough to have secured the order of the created world by conquering the hideous forces of aqueous chaos, he can surely confound the vile enemy who has laid wast Zion.

    Considering the eccentric plural form (ראשי לויתן), it seems that Mary Sidney has done fine with “monsters head.” She doesn’t need to know the psalmist’s intent. Nor does she even need a footnote to describe the dread of this thing with fishy flesh. Alter is reading the Hebrew as poetry and is trying with his verse to convey some of that. Mary Sidney does more than just try. She gets the wordplay and gives a little of her own.

  11. December 7, 2012 1:55 am


    Any literary features which might be discerned can be ignored, not least because they were probably anyway not part of the author’s deliberate intention.

    Really?? My understanding is that the biblical texts as we have them today emerged out of a long process of first oral, then written, development and redaction. It is inconceivable to me that a text that’s been through multiple redactions would have discernible literary features by accident.

    I’m also of the firm belief that the form of a text is part of its content, not merely a neutral content-container. The form itself conveys content.

  12. December 7, 2012 8:34 am

    It is inconceivable to me that a text that’s been through multiple redactions would have discernible literary features by accident.

    So, you would agree with Michael Drosnin that the literary features known as “Bible codes” which he has discerned in the text were deliberately concealed there by the authors? Clearly claims like that the name Yitzhak Rabin was hidden in the text are at the lunatic fringe of detection of literary features. But there is a continuous spectrum of such alleged features from ones like these, through simpler numerological patterns e.g. that authors deliberately used the name of God multiples of seven times, to more strictly grammatical features like avoidance of certain constructions. Where would you draw the line between what is “inconceivable” and what can be believed only by an extreme literalist conspiracy theorist?

  13. December 8, 2012 12:08 pm

    Peter, I see your point that literary features and bible codes could be seen as points on a spectrum, but it took me by surprise because I perceive quite a significant difference between intentionally wrought style and intentionally hidden code. Stylistic features accentuate, emphasize, and suggest; they are intended to shape the reader’s perception of the text at hand. Code is intended to conceal one text within another.

    I suppose that allegory sits right on this divide, but effective allegory cues the reader or makes use of common conventions to bring the reader in on the other level of meaning of the text, which I might describe as “clothed” rather than “concealed.”

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