In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Latin American literature burst into the English-speaking world with astonishing force. Works such as Gabriel García Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Autumn of the Patriarch, Julio Cortazar’s Hopscotch and 62 Model Kit, and Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Green House established the newfound power and imagination of a young generation of Latin American writers.
These books also confirmed the talent of Gregory Rabassa, the man Garcia Marquez has called “the best Latin American writer in the English language.” But Rabassa doesn’t write books; he translates them.
About 5 feet 6 and of slight build, Rabassa is wearing a blue blazer, a pink-and-white pin-striped shirt and blue bow tie, light brown pants, and slightly incongruous white shoes. “I’m doing my Gatsby impersonation today,” he deadpans. Sporting his white hair in a crew cut and carrying a bulky, unfashionable briefcase, Rabassa, 64, at first glance resembles a salesman from a 1950s movie. But then he starts telling stories, his eyes sparkling, and he looks like an aging elf.
Rabassa talks in smooth bursts, paced with offhanded control by sips of a martini or easy silences. He sits with his hands folded in front of him and colors his points with small flourishes: a knowing look, a shading in tone, a turn of phrase, a shrug. Then he leans back and breaks the mood with a wry comment or an absurd aside at a most unexpected moment. He has an impish sense of humor and a hearty, generous laugh.
He begins the conversation in Spanish. He speaks with the elegance and soothing accent of a caballero Español, a Spanish gentleman. But he is a native New Yorker, son of a Cuban father and an American mother. As the conversation switches to English (no need to translate a translator), Rabassa talks about his work.
He got into translation by accident, he says. In 1946, after graduating from Dartmouth, he taught comparative literature as a graduate student at Columbia. He and others published a short-lived magazine called Odyssey Review, with fiction and poetry by writers from two European and two Latin American countries. Rabassa’s job was to choose the Latin American writers.
The magazine needed a translator, so he took on that role as well. And, he says, “it worked.”
Word got out, and not long after that, Pantheon called when the publishing house needed a translator for Cortazar’s Rayuela (Hopscotch), the story of a group of Argentine exiles in Paris, told in a novel-puzzle structure. As a sample, Rabassa translated a couple of chapters. Pantheon liked it, Cortazar liked it, and Rabassa did the translation, for which he won the National Book Award for 1967.
It was the first in a collection of prizes that includes the 1977 PEN prize for his translation of Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, the 1982 PEN Medal for Translation, and, last year, a medal from the government of Colombia for his work with Garcia Marquez.
Rabassa’s most famous work is, without a doubt, Garcia Marquez’s dazzling One Hundred Years of Solitude, the saga of six generations of the family Buendia of Macondo, a mythical town in South America populated with priests who levitate after drinking chocolate and inventors obsessed with photographing God. When Garcia Marquez (who is known to friends as “Gabo”) was looking for a translator, Rabassa recalls, Cortazar recommended him. “I was busy then, but Julio said to Gabo, ‘Wait for him.’ ” Garcia Marquez waited, Rabassa did the translation, and his work was nominated for the National Book Award.
For Rabassa, One Hundred Years was also an exception. He read it before he translated it. “People said, ‘You have to read it,’ so . . .” he recalls. Usually, he doesn’t read a book before translating it. He hadn’t read Hopscotch until he worked on it, and he hasn’t read his most recent assignment, Jorge Amado’s Tocaia Grande. But, he quickly adds, he doesn’t want to get dogmatic about his system.
“I’ll read it, I won’t read it,” Rabassa says with a shrug. “But if I read it as I translate, it is like creation. It’s closer to creating it. You don’t know what is happening. You are discovering it as you go. I’m halfway through with Jorge Amado, and so far, so good.”
There is no established routine in his work. Some days, he says, he translates four or five pages, other days he does 12 or 15. But he always follows a friend’s advice and does something every day. “Once I sit down,” he says, “if nothing else, at least I dot my i’s.” If a translator doesn’t do this, Rabassa warns, the work “will get further and further away from you — and the secret is staying close to it.”
He completes about 50 pages, then goes back and rewrites them in what he hopes will be the definitive copy. But a translator is never satisfied, he says. “There always comes a time, after I write something when I pick it up and say, ‘I should have said it this way.’ It never ends. You can pick a page of translation every day of the week and make a change. So you come to a point when you close your eyes, hold your nose, and say, ‘Here it is,’ “he says, holding an imaginary book at arm’s length. He pauses. “Then you read the book, and you see, of course, what you should have done.”
Gregory Rabassa’s father was a sugar broker who came from Cuba in 1910. He describes his mother as a WASP. “I have no idea how they met,” he offers, in his best Buster Keaton form.
Rabassa’s father lost most of his money when the sugar market collapsed in 1923. All that was left was a big house up in New Hampshire, and so the family made its way to New England.
Growing up, Rabassa picked up what he calls “kitchen Spanish,” although he did not study the language formally until college. “The old man would speak some Spanish,” he says, “but Cubans adjust very well. His English was good.” In high school, Rabassa studied French and Latin. And in college (“We lived in New Hampshire, so I went to Dartmouth,” he offers matter-of-factly) he became “a language collector,” learning Spanish and Portuguese.
Then came World War II. He served in Italy and Africa with the Office of Strategic Services (“the spy office, you know”). After his return, he completed his master’s in Spanish at Columbia University. But nothing intrigued him in Spanish, he says, so he wrote his PhD dissertation on Brazilian literature. But that, he is quick to add, was before the nueva narrativa.
The nueva narrativa became the catchall label for dissimilar works such as Cortazar’s daring experiment in the aleatory form in Hopscotch and the dense, luxuriant tales of Garcia Marquez. For Rabassa the new narrative is both the rebirth of the epic and the renewal, in literature in Spanish, of the tradition of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra and his Don Quixote de La Mancha, published in the early 1600s.
Rabassa quotes his wife, Clementine, a professor of humanities, saying, ”The epic is alive and well, living in the Latin American novel.” Then he continues, “Why it’s happening in Latin America, I don’t know. Perhaps because Latin America is becoming more aware of itself. The epic defines the people. Homer defined what the Greek was. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote and showed what the Spaniards were — still today, you scratch a Spaniard, and you find a Quixote. In Latin America they are writing now about who Latin Americans are. Before, they were writing Anglo-French imitations.”
Rabassa is an intriguing conversationalist. He has a storyteller’s touch, and he plays his hand like a smooth poker player. Before you know it he has argued his points, reeling off authors’ names, dates, titles, and historical references, blending a librarian’s fastidious attention to detail with a favorite uncle’s charm.
He considers Cervantes the first of the writers of the new narrative: “Don Quixote is very modern. The Duchess recognizes Don Quixote when he comes along. Why? Because she read the first part. We read the first part, too, so we are at the same level with the Duchess. We are in the novel — or she’s out of the novel.”
But for centuries after that, Rabassa says, there was no truly Spanish novel. Even when the novel “reappeared” in Spain in the 19th century, it was ”an English novel written in Spanish.” Now, he says, the Latin American writers have “reconstituted” the Spanish novel.
Then he goes on to say that one of the factors that have contributed to making Latin American literature popular worldwide is that there are no more national literatures. “You can’t say that there’s French literature or Italian literature. There is literature in French, literature in Italian, but it’s the same. Maybe One Hundred Years character Colonel Aureliano Buendia is a Colombiano, but a Frenchman is going to read it and see a Frenchman. It’s become universal.”
Still, translations don’t sell much in the United States, Rabassa says. One Hundred Years sold well, but Rabassa only gets royalties from the paperback. He has made better arrangements for his next books (“I’m getting hard-nosed about it,” he says), although he quickly describes the income as “nothing great.”
And so, while he does translations, he also teaches Spanish, Portuguese, and comparative literature at Queens College in New York (where his wife also teaches), and at the Graduate School of the City University of New York.
This fall he is also teaching workshops in translation, something he’s been doing on and off for the past 15 years. “Teaching translation is like teaching writing,” he says. “You can’t really teach it. You can help. You can give ideas — but that’s all.”
He talks of his students of translation, all of whom are language majors and all of whom are bilingual. After reading the English version and the Spanish version of a book, they often underestimate the challenges of translating, he says. “I ask them to put it in English, and they figure it’s nothing, because they can read in Spanish, and then . . . pouf. Maybe you can understand something, but can you express it in your own language?” A translator must step back and then be able to work “back and forth, constantly changing gears,” says Rabassa. “The danger is that you might come too close to the language, and all of a sudden you can’t ‘see it ‘anymore.” The result can be “some awful stuff which is not English.”
“Sometimes you just have to stop,” he says of translating. “You stare at a word, and all of a sudden it looks strange to you, like something you haven’t seen before. It has happened to me. The best is just to let it go. Put an ‘x,’ whatever, and come back to it later.”
Hearing Rabassa explain it, his method sounds deceptively simple: He translates sentence by sentence. “Gabo misinterpreted it. He wrote in one of his articles that I read Cien Años, ‘digested’ it, and rewrote it. He’s wrong,” says Rabassa with his best cat-that-ate-the-canary smile. “I looked at it word by word, page by page.
“You have to keep in mind the spirit. You go after the spirit first, and then you try to make the words as close as possible. Sometimes you’re going to be close, and sometimes you are not.”
He pauses and then recalls the late Jorge Luis Borges’ sly demand. ”Borges hit the nail right on the head,” says Rabassa, “and he did it with a play on words which you can’t quite put into English: No traduzca lo que digo sino lo que quiero decir.” (An approximation of this in English would read: “Translate not what I say, but what I mean.” However, quiero decir could also be interpreted as “what I’m trying to say.”)
“Maybe,” says Rabassa, ” ‘what I’m trying to say’ is what Gabo had in mind when he said that he liked Cien Años in English better, because he was trying to say something, and Spanish wouldn’t let him say it. And English would.
“Spanish is very exact. English gives more leeway. In English, illiterate people make grammatical mistakes — ‘You is right,’ for example. They use the wrong verb with the wrong person, and so forth. In Spanish, they don’t. They can’t. The structure is very strong and concise. There’s no other way of saying it but the right way.”
Rabassa finds prose more difficult to translate than poetry. “Poetry is all sound, more fragile, but you have more time to work on it.” Prose involves so many words that a translator can’t treat them all closely or carefully, Rabassa explains, but poetry can be worked out line by line, over and over.
Still, a perfect translation is impossible, he says, mainly because while he can find an equivalent for the meaning of a word, he can’t reproduce its sound. “You can get close,” he says, “and you do get a lot of very good close translations, but the two still would sound different. You can do it between Portuguese and Spanish, but not between Spanish and English. To a degree, you have to forget about sound. Rhythm I leave up to instinct. Let the words take you. Garcia Marquez’s writing is good for that. It’s like waterskiing: Grab onto it, and let it pull you.” Rabassa sums up his beliefs in simple advice to would-be translators: Follow the authors.
“Their style will tell you what to do. And if you know them,” as he knew the late Julio Cortazar, “it’s even better.”
Rabassa’s contact with authors during the translation work usually has depended, by and large, on their availability and knowledge of English. He corresponded with Garcia Marquez while he translated One Hundred Years, but the writer moved around so much that keeping in touch was difficult, says Rabassa, and he finally had to rely on local Colombians for assistance. He found a doctor and writer in Queens who was a costeño (from the Atlantic coast region of Colombia), and he helped Rabassa with the idiomatic expressions.
“Of course, Julio was my dictionary,” Rabassa says of Cortazar, who had been a translator himself. “His English was good, and his English slang was amazingly good,” Rabassa says. “I suppose you can call Hopscotch an authenticated translation. He read and approved every word.”
Which brings up the questions of just how writers know if they are being translated correctly and how Rabassa’s work can be evaluated. Considering the questions, Rabassa tilts his head, leans back, and pauses for a moment with a smile, and then he leans forward, takes another sip of his martini, and approaches the answers at an angle.
“Julio knows,” Rabassa says. “He didn’t know enough English to translate himself, but he read it very well. Gabo knows more than he lets on. Mario thinks he knows more than he does. I remember I translated him, and he would come and say, ‘No, lo que quería decir era . . .’ “No, what I wanted to say was . . .”, and he would give me an English word that was a synonym of what I said. Gabo lets it go.
“I always worry about the critics finding some bad mistakes,” Rabassa says with a grin, “because I know I make them. Somewhere out there are some awful things I’ve done. You misinterpret things, you misread things. And so they accuse you of not knowing Spanish. . . .” He shrugs. “I know I make mistakes, but what the heck,” he says, stone-faced, “the author makes mistakes, too.”
Rabassa generally does not translate writers he doesn’t like. “I like all my writers,” he says. “I don’t like all their books.” But it is clear that, of all “his writers,” Cortazar, who died in 1984, occupies a special place in Rabassa’s heart. “He was the closest to me . . . and he is the best. I don’t know Gabo as well. He is good, of course, but as a full person, Julio is the best of them all. I think he should be immortalized as the figurehead of the movement.”
Cortazar and Rabassa began corresponding before Rabassa’s translation of Hopscotch. They met in New York soon after the book was published in the States, and Rabassa was pleasantly surprised. “I wondered if this person would be as charming, as much of a mensch, as he had been in his letters,” he says of Cortazar. “And he was, even more so.” Cortazar, at 6 feet 4, cut an imposing figure. “Physically, he was so overpowering with his height, but he had such warmth. You get an intellectual writer like Julio, and in so many cases they turn out to be a cold fish — and he wasn’t.”
Rabassa often speaks of Cortazar as if he were alive. At times, in the span of a sentence, he uses both past and present tenses. And he never hesitates, never corrects himself. There is no sentimentalizing or regret.
“He had the broadest background,” says Rabassa. “He knew more. The problem I find with some of the writers is that they are limited. Julio is into music and arts and plants and everything . . . you had to have an encyclopedia to check on Zen Buddhism or this painter or that musician. When he got into musical details, they were very professional.”
Rabassa and Cortazar, who was an amateur musician, quickly discovered they had something very dear in common: jazz. So, they listened to records together. Rabassa says, “I have an old collection of 78 records, some of them collector’s items that he hadn’t heard, and I had known Bird, so …” “Bird” is the alto saxophonist and bona fide jazz god Charlie ”Bird” Parker and the model for Cortazar’s troubled hero in his short story “El Perseguidor” (“The Pursuer”). Rabassa, who lived at the time near the legendary Open Door jazz club in Manhattan, heard Parker often and eventually met him at a party.
After Rabassa finishes his work, the final editing (“for better or for worse,” Rabassa says) is done at the publishing house. Harper & Row editor Cass Canfield Jr., who worked with Rabassa on One Hundred Years of Solitude, among others, does not speak Spanish. His job, he says, is to read the book as if it had been written in English.
“The challenge of translating,” Canfield says, “is to respect the qualities of the original while putting it in another language that might not have those qualities. It’s a gift, and Rabassa has it. He is brilliant. I’ve never had more than minor changes to suggest.”
But that hasn’t been the case with all editors. “They call and say, ‘It sounds awkward here, can we change it this way?’ ” says Rabassa, “and sometimes the author wants to sound awkward, and I fight them. Sometimes I don’t. On the whole they do a good job.” One book he had a lot of trouble with was Lezama Lima’s Paradiso, a dense, baroque novel-poem that chronicles the life of a family in the beginnings of the Cuban republic. “They kept saying that it was too inaccessible, so they ‘dumbed him down,’ they simplified him. But that’s not Lezama Lima. It’s not supposed to be simple.” Rabassa shakes his head.
Lezama Lima’s case might be an extreme example, but it is part of the plight of writers when they are being translated. “As an author,” Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa says in a phone conversation from his London residence, “I have to resign myself to the fact that a translation is always something different from the original, and that except in some exceptional cases, it’s only a pale version of it.
“A translator must, naturally, respect the text,” continues Vargas Llosa. ”But that has to be understood in a rather flexible way. In many cases, respect demands a capacity to create, and that’s the merit of Rabassa. He’s a man with a great creative sense, very musical. And he’s never a slave of the text. He is capable of re-creating a text in another language, even taking some liberties that, at the end, reveal a greater fidelity to the text than any possible literal translation ever could.”
In that narrow strip between the strict meaning of a word and its spirit, between being the writer of someone else’s words and being a creator, lie much of the pleasure and the greatest challenges of translating. “It’s fun to use your own words,” says Rabassa. “And you can write, but you don’t have to worry about thinking of plots or characters. And yet you can use the language.”
Only after being asked about it does he mention that he has written some poetry. He talks, punctuating his words with shrugs, suddenly looking like a shy high-schooler. At one point he gently chides himself, “I should write a novel.”
In the meantime, with the writers on one side and the editors on the other, one culture here, the other just across and around an invisible line, has Gregory Rabassa ever felt like a sort of go-between? He starts to answer, then stops and zigzags his answer as if at a loss for words.
“Not really, no.” He pauses. “When I’m working, it’s just me and the text … I suppose afterward I could say that, but … I don’t know, it wouldn’t be true. I don’t know how I feel about that. I just sit down and put it into words. My words.” There’s a short pause and then, very softly, in a low voice, he adds, “Of course, I am the middleman.”
This feature appeared in The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine, November 23, 1986
Gregory Rabassa died June 13, 2016. He was 94.