Gregory Rabassa, 1922-2016

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Gregory Rabassa in 2007 (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Many of the Latin American Boom’s greatest writers owe much of their international acclaim to one man: Gregory Rabassa, who passed away last month.

Rabassa’s English translations of Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (9743.c.74), Mario Vargas Llosa’s The green house (9743.c.108) and, in particular, Gabriel García Márquez’s One hundred years of solitude (9743.c.116) sold millions of copies and brought these authors to a much wider audience. He enjoyed a particularly close and mutually appreciative relationship with Cortázar and also translated the great Brazilian authors, Clarice Lispector, Jorge Amado and Machado de Assis, amongst many others.

Rabassa was born in Yonkers, New York to a Cuban father and American mother. Although he grew up speaking English, he fell in love with Spanish and Portuguese and studied these languages at Dartmouth and Columbia. He went on to teach at Columbia for over 20 years, before moving to Queens College, New York for the rest of his academic career.

He fell into professional translation after an editor happened to notice his work in a Columbia literary magazine and asked him to translate Julio Cortázar’s Rayuela (744:35.d.95.236). Despite the book’s incredible complexity and the fact that Rabassa had not read it before beginning work on it, his translation went on to win a National Book Award and, even more importantly, led to Cortázar recommending him to Gabriel García Márquez as the ideal translator for his latest novel, already making huge waves across Latin America at the time, Cien años de soledad (744:35.d.95.167).

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The first UK edition of Rabassa’s translation (9743.c.116)

Somewhat astonishingly, García Márquez willingly waited three years for Rabassa to translate the novel, as he was already engaged in translating Miguel Ángel Asturias. The translation proved worth the wait, however, as it became a worldwide bestseller and literary phenomenon, which García Márquez even declared to be better than the original. In contrast to his personal friendship with Cortázar, with whom he bonded over a shared love of jazz music, Rabassa never built up any kind of relationship with García Márquez, but he still went on to translate many of the Colombian author’s acclaimed later works.

The New York Times obituary for Rabassa includes a wonderful anecdote from his acclaimed memoir, If this be treason: translation and its dyscontents (T 5 RAB, English Faculty Library) about the challenges of translating one of literature’s most famous titles and opening sentences:

With “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” for instance, the torment began with the first word of the title.

In Spanish, the novel is called “Cien Años de Soledad,” with “cien” meaning “100.”

But there’s the rub, for the translator into English confronts an instant quandary: whether to translate “cien” as “a hundred” or “one hundred.”

Professor Rabassa was an ardent believer in the aurality of text. To him, “a” was an acoustic flyspeck, little more than a fleeting grunt. He chose the more durable “one.”

The novel’s famous opening sentence wrought compound agonies. The original reads, “Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía había de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.”

[…]

Confronting the devilish verb “conocer,” Professor Rabassa continued:

“The word seen straight means to know a person or thing for the first time, to meet someone, to be familiar with something. What is happening here is a first-time meeting, or learning. It can also mean to know something more deeply than ‘saber,’ to know from experience. García Márquez has used the Spanish word here with all its connotations. But to ‘know ice’ just won’t do in English. It implies, ‘How do you do, ice?’ It could be ‘to experience ice.’ The first is foolish, the second is silly. When you get to know something for the first time, you’ve discovered it. Only after that can you come to know it in the full sense.”

The evocative published result: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

Christopher Greenberg

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