Sketches of Spanish

When you walk into the center of Edith Grossman’s foyer, you’re not sure which of the six white-walled rooms of this classic high-ceilinged Upper West Side ground-floor apartment, with their ubiquitous wooden bookshelves, tall and short, to rake your eyes over first. As we stood in place for a while chatting by the entrance, I took in the familiar Picasso and Goya prints on the walls, and Grossman held her chin trying to remember where we first met. It soon became evident that she didn’t have a plan for how best to show me the inner shelf life of the apartment she’s inhabited for twenty-nine years; she’s laid-back like that. On the other hand, I was overwhelmed with how I was going to absorb a collection comprising five decades’ worth of international and domestic fiction, scholarly and reference materials for studying contemporary and classic Spanish-language literature, and an oeuvre of translations, in just a couple of hours. You see, Edith, please call me Edie, has been like a literary rock star for me since I started in publishing.

Grossman, seventy-one, the foremost English translator of Spanish-language literature, has reimagined the Latin American canon for readers of English, who perhaps, like she, have ventured to Latin America only via the page. She has escorted high-caliber writers to glory with her acclaimed translations. Some of those authors are alive, with names like Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Álvaro Mutis. Others, like Miguel de Cervantes, are long deceased. Any writer writing in Spanish today wants Grossman as their translator. And in an American publishing industry eager to conceal from book buyers the fact that a translated book is in fact a translation, she is also one of the few translators who get cover credit.

Grossman is tall with silver-streaked wavy hair. There’s something Lauren Bacall–ish about her looks and husky, true East Coast diction. It’s a voice that’s direct and genuine and doesn’t put on literary airs. Raised in a middle-class neighborhood of Philadelphia, she attended Girls High School, “for my sins,” she says, though it had a good reputation. A reluctant student, Grossman was “bored speechless.” That’s until she met the Spanish teacher Naomi Zieber. Grossman had a good ear and a knack for memorizing. She found learning languages was something she was good at. Grossman also found someone to emulate. “She was such a humane woman,” says Grossman of her teacher. “She was serious and demanding but not rigid. You could not fool around. I learned so much in her class that I thought, ‘Oh, whatever she does, I’m going to do.’”

Grossman attended the University of Pennsylvania on a scholarship and majored in Spanish. It was there she published her first translation, a poem by Nobel Prize–winning Spanish writer Juan Ramón Jiménez, in the university’s literary magazine. Then she headed west to the University of California, Berkeley. In 1962, she traveled to Spain on a Fulbright, returning to New York to finish her Ph.D. in Latin American studies. Her dissertation on the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra caught the eye of her adviser, who knew Ronald Christ, then the editor of what is now the Americas Society’s Review magazine. He recommended Grossman to Christ, and she began doing reviews.

What happened next would continue for the rest of her life: people calling her up with work. Christ asked Grossman to translate Argentine writer Macedonio Fernández’s short story “The Surgery of Psychic Removal,” about erasing memory. Grossman was hesitant. “I said ‘Ronald, I’m not a translator, I’m a critic.’ And he said, ‘Call yourself whatever you want. Try this.’” Grossman recalls loving the work. Other projects followed, including a novel by Peruvian writer Manuel Scorza published by Harper & Rowe in 1977. Then came the García Márquez offer. She recalls that an agent who lived in her building called her and flat out asked, “Edie, you interested in translating García Márquez?” Grossman rolls her eyes and puffs her mouth out reliving the day and says she replied, “What? Of course I’m interested.” Grossman submitted a twenty-page sample translation of Love in the Time of Cholera to Knopf and was chosen. “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.”

Grossman’s former office is tucked into a far corner of the apartment, off the kitchen. In it, she has a wall of photographs of her favorite musicians. She points to Aretha Franklin’s photo and confesses that if the literary world hadn’t grabbed her, she would have liked to have become a blues singer. Grossman’s floor-to-ceiling bookcase has “shelves for books I’ve read and shelves for books I translated so I can give them to people.” She gives me a copy of The Golden Age: Poems of the Spanish Renaissance, which she compiled for Norton. “I can’t do a scholarly collection for you,” she told the editor. “This has to be my choice of poems by poets I like.” The compilation begins with Jorge Manrique’s Coplas” and ends with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. When I comment on the shelf containing Cuban writer Mayra Montero, Grossman says, with gusto, “Ah, my dear Mayra, she’s such a talented writer.” Montero’s novel Dancing to “Almendra,” which Grossman translated, was a New York Times notable book for 2007. It was a good year. Grossman also had Spanish writer Carmen Laforet’s Nada on the Washington Post’s best-of list, while Vargas Llosa’s The Bad Girl was highlighted on both lists.

We pass a spacious dining room where she keeps Russian and German writers in one bookcase and British writers in another. In her rustic living room, with its low-lined bookcases, jazz station WBGO blares in the background. She shuts it off and blames the radio station for why she could never work anywhere but New York City. “You never have to get up and change the CD,” she says. We talk Auster, Saramago, Roth, Coetzee; I spot them on the shelves but wind up returning to Spanish-language writers, which leads to history’s greatest novel, Don Quixote. Ecco’s Dan Halpern once called Grossman to propose that she take on a translation of Cervantes’s masterpiece. “I said, ‘Dan, you sure you want me? I do contemporary Latin American writers.’” Halpern said yes.

The Picasso rendering of Don Quixote in thick black strokes, the print she has on the wall of her office, was used for the cover of the British Vintage edition of her translation. Ecco’s has a stunning deep red cover with a medieval helmet. She has several editions of Don Quixote displayed in her current office, which used to be her son’s bedroom. He was forewarned on moving out, “I will leave everything as is for a year, and then that room is mine.” It has two deep closets packed with more of her books, her son’s stuff, and piles of first- and second-pass manu­scripts that libraries are interested in purchasing. “I’m not a collector in the sense of fine editions, but I really am a pack rat.” The bookcase along the wall exemplifies the seriousness of her work and the meticulousness she devotes to background research. There are history books on Mexico and Peru, works on Simón Bolívar she consulted for García Márquez’s The General in His Labyrinth, and the eleventh-edition set of the Encyclopedia Britannica she used to elucidate Mutis’s references in The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll. Grossman once attempted to separate them into categories but eventually refrained. “Organization isn’t one of my fortes. There comes a moment when I say, ‘The hell with this, I can’t bear it.’” Adjacent to her big wooden desk, she has a stand lined with various international dictionaries. When she’s working, she keeps a 1973 Simon & Schuster English-Spanish/Spanish-English dictionary open on her left and a 1976 Collins one (now missing its spine) on her right. She is in the midst of translating Carlos Fuentes’s novel All the Happy Families (a working title). Grossman also happily relates that she recently took on a young writer, the Peruvian Premio Alfaguara winner Santiago Roncagliolo. She hopes to work with more such writers in the future.

On top of a bookcase in the hallway outside her bedroom is a towering stack of books. “Those I’m waiting to read, though not in any order of preference. But after I’ve read a very long one, all I want is a short one.” Grossman is a reader’s reader, happy to have gotten cheap paperbacks from neighborhood stores like the old Shakespeare & Co., Labyrinth Books (now Bookculture), and Papyrus (now Morningside Bookshop). It’s about the content, not covers or first editions. “I like to buy books on the street, too, but I’m wary of it now because of bed bugs.” Her collection has also been fed by the places she traveled to in her youth. She grins large: “My clothes used to fit in an overnight bag. But my books took up trunks and trunks.”

Adriana V. López is a writer and editor based in New York City and Madrid.