Remembering Gregory Rabassa

Martin Boyd

Gregory Rabassa (1922-2016)

Gregory Rabassa (1922-2016)

The world of literary translation lost one of its most important figures last month with the death of US translator Gregory Rabassa. When the so-called “Latin American boom” brought writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and Julio Cortázar to international fame in the 1960s, it was Rabassa whose well-crafted translations brought many of their masterpieces alive in the English language. For Hopscotch, his translation of Cortázar’s Rayuela, one of the first Latin American novels to receive international attention, Rabassa won the US National Book Award for Translation in 1967. However, of all of his translations the most widely read is without doubt One Hundred Years of Solitude, one of the most important literary works of the twentieth century, whose author García Márquez described Rabassa as “the best Latin American writer in the English language.”

Rabassa was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1922, and grew up on a farm in Hanover, New Hampshire. The son of a Cuban immigrant and a native New Yorker, the bilingual atmosphere of his childhood inspired him to take an interest in languages, and he went on to study Romance Languages at Dartmouth College. His first job was as a cryptographer for the US army during the Second World War, work which Rabassa described in his memoirs as the beginning of his career as a translator. After the war he took on the job of editor of translations of stories in Spanish and Portuguese for the literary journal Odyssey, where many Latin American authors who would later achieve fame during the “boom” were published in English for the first time.  It was thanks to this work that he received the task of translating Cortázar’s masterpiece Rayuela. His translation, Hopscotch, was published in 1966, consolidating his reputation as one of the most important translators of Latin American literature into English.

Rabassa’s other translations include García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral and Paradiso by José Lezama Lima. In 2001 he received the lifetime achievement award from the PEN American Center for contributions to Hispanic literature. He was also awarded a National Medal of Arts in 2006 for translations which “continue to enhance our cultural understanding and enrich our lives.”

Rabassa’s translation philosophy was based on a perspective of language as a highly personal phenomenon, according to which “words have any number of possible nuances for every individual as they rest in the subconscious and relate to some early experience.” In this sense, translation is a process in which “the personal word of the author’s [must] be transformed into a personal word of the translator. As always in translation, this calls for a choice among synonyms. Ideally, the author’s choice among the synonyms in his own language was made in a purposeful and conscious way. In most cases, however, and as it should be, it is made quite naturally and instinctively: ‘This is how I want to say it.’ The translator, too, should most usually work from this natural application of meaning: ‘This is how we say it in English.’ Nevertheless, the translator must be alert and aware of the fact that both he and the author have their ‘own’ words.”

Gregory Rabassa TreasonIt is in the spaces of polysemy created by the different nuances of meaning of words where the “personal word” of the translator emerges. An example of this phenomenon can be discerned in Rabassa’s description in his book If This Be Treason of the reasoning behind his “choice among synonyms” to translate the title of Cien años de soledad:

Cien is our first problem because in Spanish it bears no article so that the word can waver between one hundred and a hundred […]. I viewed the extent of time involved as something quite specific, as in a prophecy […]. What is troublesome, of course, is that both interpretations are conjoined subconsciously for the reader in Spanish […] but an English speaker reading the Spanish will have to decide subconsciously which meaning is there.”

Thus, just as Rabassa’s imagined English-speaking reader must “subconsciously decide” on the meaning implied, the translator must consciously decide which implied meaning to make explicit in English… and thus mark the translation with his own fingerprint.

The voice of the translator is also heard in his decision over how to translate “soledad” in the title:

“I went for solitude because it’s a touch more inclusive and can also carry the germ of loneliness if pushed along those lines, as Billie Holliday so eloquently demonstrated.”

For Rabassa, translation was always a process plagued by ambiguity and ambivalence, and no translation can ever be called a “definitive” translation. In his memoirs he claimed to have been dissatisfied with every translation he ever did, even the most praiseworthy. Nevertheless, he left his permanent fingerprint, his own signature, on all of his translations, which deserve to be recognized as works of literature in themselves, literary “re-creations”. With Rabassa’s passing, the world has indeed lost one of the greatest Latin American writers in the English language.

Quotes taken from Gregory Rabassa’s If This Be Treason.

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