Acclaimed literary translator of Spanish and Latin American greats who was hailed by Gabriel García Márquez as his ‘voice in English’

Grossman at home in New York in 2010

Translators, wrote Edith Grossman in her book Why Translat ion Matters, are usually seen as “the humble, anonymous handmaidens-and-men” who toil in the shadows of the great writers, their translations appearing as if by some kind of “immaculate conception”.

Yet translation, she argued, is an art form in its own right that offers a crucial cultural window to readers.

“Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper,” she noted in a tribute to Gabriel García Márquez, whose novels she translated. “It is an act of critical interpretation. No two languages, with all their accretions of tradition and culture, ever dovetail perfectly. They can be linked by translation, as a photograph can link movement and stasis, but it is disingenuous to assume that either translation or photography . . . are representational in any narrow sense of the term.”

Her 2003 translation of the 17th-century novel Don Quixote is still considered the definitive version in English. It was one of the first books to have included the name of its translator on the front cover alongside that of the author, Miguel de Cervantes. Her “discomfort” when her lawyer first suggested that she ask for the credit soon gave way to delight.

“I thought: ‘It’s bloody well about time that the translator not be treated as a poor relation, that the translator is treated as an equal partner in the enterprise’.”

Translating the Spanish epic was no easy task: there was 400 years’ worth of heavy scholarship and translations to wade through and it took Grossman two years to complete. For the first time she used footnotes to help her explain some of the hardest-to-translate puns.

When it was published, a Guardian review from Harold Bloom, who wrote the book’s introduction, praised the “extraordinarily high quality of her prose” and her skilful portrait of a Spain in spiritual decline. “Grossman might be called the Glenn Gould of translators,” he wrote, “because she, too, articulates every note.” Carlos Fuentes, the Mexican writer whose books she would translate, called her Don Quixote “truly masterly: the contemporaneous and the original coexist”.

When Márquez discovered that Grossman — by now something of a specialist in Latin American and Spanish literature — was translating Cervantes, the Colombian writer said: “I hear you’re two-timing me with Miguel.” She had translated almost all of Márquez’s novels, starting with Love in the Time of Cholera, of which Grossman’s translation was published in 1988. It marked a turning point in her career.

Still refining her craft she found Márquez an exacting author to translate — rather like having a very strict composition teacher at school, she said, or “doing an intense crossword puzzle” — and he asked her to avoid using adverbs since he never used them in Spanish.

“I thought of a generalised 19th-century realistic-novel voice by way of Faulkner,” who, Grossman argued, was “very Spanish” in the way his sentences flow and their dependent clauses. “It’s as if Hemingway had never walked the earth. I put Hemingway’s impulse to abbreviate and write very tersely aside and used polysyllabic words, and I did not use contractions. I just let it be a little old-fashioned in its flow.”

Grossman at home in 2003

Grossman often spoke of wanting to “hear” the original version of a text as profoundly as possible, and she was once again praised for managing to capture “the swing and translucency of his writing”, observed Thomas Pynchon, “its slang and its classicism, the lyrical stretches and those end-of-sentence zingers he likes to hit us with.”

Márquez was also impressed and he asked her to translate his subsequent novels, including The General in His Labyrinth, One Hundred Years of Solitude and News of a Kidnapping, as well as his memoir Living to Tell the Tale. “You are my voice in English,” he told her.

She was born Edith Marion Dorph in 1936 in a middle-class neighbourhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her family later moved to New York. Her father, Alexander Dorph, was a shoe salesman and union organiser and her mother, Sarah (née Stern), a secretary and homemaker.

Her Don Quixote was one of the first books to feature the translator’s name on the cover

As a teenager she devoured science fiction novels until one day she “found it so tedious that I couldn’t read it any more”. She began studying Spanish at Girls High (“for my sins”), Philadelphia’s best public school for girls at the time, where she was a reluctant student and “bored speechless” until a Spanish teacher sparked her interest in the language and literature of Spain and Latin America and encouraged her to apply for a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, where Grossman completed a BA and then an MA in Spanish.

She had a good ear and a knack for memorising and during her studies she translated the lyrical poetry of Juan Ramón Jimónez, the Nobel prizewinning Spanish author.

After travelling to Spain in 1962 on a Fulbright scholarship she completed a PhD in Latin American literature at New York University (NYU). Some of her translations were published in the university literary magazine and her dissertation on the Chilean “anti-poet” Nicanor Parra caught the eye of her adviser, Ronald Christ, who gave her a job reviewing at the literary magazine he edited.

At the start of her career she set her sights on being a critic and teacher — a limitation perhaps owing to a professor at the university who had once said to her: “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.”

“I really got pissed,” she recalled. “I told him: ‘You have no way of knowing what I am going to do’.”

She translated Love in the Time of Cholera in 1988

In the Seventies she “moonlighted as a translator” and “sunlighted as a college instructor” at NYU and Columbia University. Her first professional translation for Christ was a piece from 1941 called The Surgery of Psychic Removal by the Argentinian writer Macedonian Fernandez, about erasing memory. At first she was hesitant. “I said ‘Ronald, I’m not a translator, I’m a critic.’ And he said, ‘Call yourself whatever you want. Try this.’ ”

By 1990, two years after she translated , she had given up teaching and criticism full-time to focus on translation. “I thought to sit at home and translate was more fun than playing with monkeys,” she told The Observer in a critique of academic life. “I didn’t have to get dressed to go to work. I could smoke all I wanted. And I thought, this is perfect.”

Grossman could be prickly if she had cause. An acute literary bugbear was the standard interpretation of Márquez’s novels as masterpieces of “magical realism”, which she thought both lazy and inaccurate. Her students, she recalled, were allowed to say anything they liked in her presence — except for the words “magical” and “realism”.

“It’s always struck me as an easy, empty kind of remark,” said Grossman, who was tall and strong-boned with silver-streaked hair and a husky voice. “In other words, when you say ‘magic realism’ what have you said about what kind of novels he writes? What have you said about the way Latin America, Colombia in particular, plays a part in his books?”

Yet for all her stridency Edie, as everyone called her, had “a satirical bent” to her character — “I see the ludicrous in lots of elements,” she said — and this came through in her translations, which were playful and always receptive to humour. When she first read Don Quixote as a teenager she was struck by the tragedy of the story, but with age she came to see the comedy of it and found the book “insanely funny”.

To unwind she sometimes watched a programme on the home shopping channel “that makes me laugh, because it’s unintentionally funny”. Her favourite musician was Aretha Franklin and she described herself as a “closet poet”.

Among the awards she received was the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Civil Merit, awarded by King Felipe of Spain in 2016.

She had married Norman Grossman, a musician, in 1965. They divorced in 1984 and she is survived by two sons, Kory and Matthew.

She once observed that there are certain similarities between translation and marriage; she advised colleagues not to marry someone whose company they did not enjoy, just as they should not translate a book they did not like.

And so her translations were always works by authors she admired, such as Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Álvaro Mutis and the Peruvian Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.

As for Cervantes, “I would love to have a meal with him,” she once said. “I’d love to have a couple of drinks with him. I’d like to sit and chat and talk about literature and all of the other things you talk about with someone you’re really very fond of.”

Edith Grossman, translator, was born on March 22, 1936. She died of pancreatic cancer on September 4, 2023, aged 87