The Ingenious Gentleman and Poet Federico Garcia Lorca Ascends to Hell by Carlos Rojas is the latest book to be translated by Edith Grossman, one of the most renowned translators in the world. And though she's spent her career translating authors like Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Cervantes, she shared with Tip Sheet some of her personal favorites.
At first I thought I’d put together a list of ten translated books that have affected me deeply but decided not to when I realized, with some astonishment, that certain English-language books actually did turn my life around, change my thinking, and seriously influence my decision-making. I’m avoiding the issue of the precise number because books often came to my attention in groups rather than as individual volumes.
I had favorite books when I was a girl, especially The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Story of King Arthur, and Little Women, all of which I read over and over again, but the book that made a huge impression on me and invariably brought more tears to my eyes than the heartbreaking death of Robin Hood or the image of King Arthur sailing off to Avalon was Bambi. I read the book countless times and, as a consequence, developed a deep dislike of hunting, which I found incomprehensible. The effect has lasted to this day.
The other book that had a major impact on me a few years later, when I was about twelve and read it against my parents’ wishes and behind their backs, was The Naked and the Dead. Because I was so young I couldn’t comprehend all of the novel, but what I took away with me was an on-going commitment to pacifism. This came as a surprise: I grew up during the Second World War, and my mind was filled with a comic book version of villainy and virtue, a movie image of heroism. After reading the novel, I couldn’t imagine any cause that could justify subjecting vulnerable human beings to the kind of suffering and brutality depicted by Mailer. I still can’t.
I started to read this next group of books in college, where I embarked on my exploration of the great European fiction of the 19th century, especially French and Russian novels, in particular Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina.
These sophisticated, artfully written and translated books convinced me that whatever I did professionally, I clearly had to spend the rest of my life involved with literature: writing about it, teaching it, or, as it turned out years later, translating it.
My academic plan was to specialize in Peninsular literature, which I did as an undergraduate: one of the effects of reading those compelling 19th century novels was a shift in my interest from the linguistic to the literary. In graduate school, intrigued by the Golden Age, I began to focus on the powerful poetry written in Spain in the 17th century, especially the work of Francisco de Quevedo and Luis de Góngora. I was in the midst of gathering materials and ideas for a dissertation on Quevedo when I happened to read Pablo Neruda’s Residencia en la tierra [Residence on Earth]. The poetry quite simply overwhelmed me, and I remember thinking that now I had no options: I had to leave the 17th century behind and study living poets writing breathtaking work in my world and my time. This was when I changed my specialization to Latin American literature. Years later, as a translator, I returned to the Spanish renaissance and found great pleasure there.
I can’t remember when I first read them—the mid-1950s, I think—but two deeply troubling works of fiction had more to say about the nature of exploitation and power and the dynamics of politics and racism than any works of history or sociology I had come across. And with each reading they seemed more incisive and more truthful. They were George Orwell’s 1984 and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, analytical yet anguished cries of protest written only four years apart.
I believe Invisible Man is the better novel in terms of characters and narrative structure, yet every morning when I open the newspaper, the amazing prescience of 1984 is driven home once again. Both novels tended to engender a good deal of skepticism in me regarding public men and women and their pronouncements.
There are books that didn’t change my life quite as dramatically but have been very important to me. The Collected Poems of William Butler Yeats is a book that traveled with me for years—I couldn’t imagine leaving home without it and packed it in the small suitcase I took to Spain, Greece, and a few other places.
I seem to read The Great Gatsby every five years or so and still think it’s the most poetic piece of prose I’ve ever encountered. If there’s one Great American Novel, it must be Gatsby.
Toni Morrison’s Jazz is the only book I ever finished reading and, after taking a deep breath, began to read all over again. She achieves a wonderful sense of musical improvisation in her writing; the mystery of how she does it is intriguing.
Every novel written by Philip Roth has moved me down to the soles of my feet. Most of the time he writes about a world I know and people I might have known and experiences that have the emotional charge of familiarity, and he does it in perfectly rendered prose and perfectly constructed fictions.
I’d like to mention five books I’ve read fairly recently and plan to reread soon. I’m sure they will achieve the status of classics. At least, I hope they will. Three are translations, and two are by American authors. These are Gerbrand Bakker’s Ten White Geese, translated by David Comer; Hans Keilson’s Comedy in a Minor Key, translated by Damion Searls; Laurent Binet’s HHhH, translated by Sam Taylor; Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk; Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds.
Finally, I feel obliged to offer embarrassed apologies to Coetzee, Munro, Trevor, Saramago, Sebald, Byatt, Cervantes, Joyce, and all the other truly great fiction writers and poets whose books are not included in this list. I’m not sure why ten is the magic number: it might have been easier to choose three.