Now 81, Gregory Rabassa is probably the most important translator of the 20th century. “I guess my work has had an impact on Latin American literature,” he said. Over the last four decades, Rabassa has translated more than three dozen books from Spanish and Portuguese into English, including works by Nobel laureates Gabriel García Márquez, Octavio Paz, and Miguel Angel Asturias and literary heavyweights Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and Jorge Amado.
These days, Rabassa can be found stooped over his old typewriter, laboriously mulling over the scattered pages of a manuscript. Thin ash-gray hair covering his bowed head as if immersed in prayer, he deletes paragraphs, changes words and inserts whole passages. His new book, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Discontent, chronicles the long tenuous road of his life as a translator.
“I want to get this book off the ground,” he said. “It focuses on my life and the many voyages through the lives and times of great Latin America authors and how I see their work.” Rabassa earned his measure of fame for translating Gabriel García Márquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, a long, sprawling epic of magical realism, set in the imaginary town of Macondo. Rabassa’s translation of the García Márquez masterpiece—considered by many to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century—sparked interest in Latin American literature throughout the English-speaking world.
García Márquez’ literary career began slowly, with a series of short stories published beginning in 1946 in El espectador, a liberal daily newspaper in Bogotá. Those stories led to a position as a reporter for the paper, first in Colombia and, in the early 1950s, in Europe. His first book, La hojarasca (published in 1972 as Leaf Storm in an English translation by Rabassa) appeared in Columbia in 1955. The novel tentatively mapped out the landscape and history of Macondo, a fictional town in Colombia that would occupy García Márquez for another decade.
During that time, García Márquez married, started a family, wrote for newspapers and television shows and published three more Macondo books, none of which proved commercially successful. Still, the voices of Macondo called out to him, and he wrote the most famous sentence in Latin American literature, an opening line as universally known in the Spanish-speaking world as “Call me Ishmael” or “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” are in English. “Muchos años después, frente al pelotón de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendía habría de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre lo llevó a conocer el hielo.” Translated: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
García Márquez quit writing for television and periodicals, focusing on the novel that would become Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude). In late 1965, he wrote in a letter flushed with the elation of inspiration, “I’m on top of the world. After five years of sterility, the book is literally gushing from me, without any problems of words…In a sense, it’s the first novel I started to write when I was seventeen.”
“That’s his greatest book,” Rabassa booms. “I don’t think he’ll ever match the success of that book. He’s written a lot of good books, but nothing can match the book that won [him] the Nobel Prize. He will be a classic like Cervantes. You’ll be reading him for years to come, while some of the other writers will drift away. Márquez will still remain at the top of the list.” At first, however, the signs of success weren’t entirely apparent, Rabassa said. “I never knew back then that he was going to be this big. But I knew he was good. In Latin America he was already being talked about, [even if] the outside world didn’t know him.”
Getting a writer’s literary magic to transcend cultural borders is Rabassa’s job and passion. When he’s translating the writers of Latin America, he’s doing nothing less than bridging cultures with the written word. He studies every detailed phrase, every metaphor, like an anthropologist looking for lost artifacts. “When you translate [artists’ works] from Spanish to English, you’re translating their minds [and not just their words]. You can tell when a writer’s voice is authentic. Good translations allow readers to get to know good writers,” he said. As a gauge of Rabassa’s success, García Márquez has called him the “best Latin American writer in the English language.”
Rabassa’s entry into the field was accidental.
During World War II, he served in North Africa and Italy with the Office of Strategic Services (later renamed the Central Intelligence Agency). His first clandestine assignment included breaking secret military codes. “That’s where my translating career started. But when I got out of the service, I decided all I wanted to do was go to college, because after the war I didn’t want to work that hard anymore.”
The youngest of three sons of a Cuban father and an American mother, he grew up in New Hampshire and went to Dartmouth College to study Romance languages. In 1947, he received a Master’s in Spanish literature and obtained a doctorate in 1954 at Columbia for his dissertation, The Negro in Brazilian Fiction since 1888. “That’s where I learned Spanish, in college. And then later I traveled to Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico and Brazil where I refined my Spanish and Portuguese,” Rabassa added.
After graduate school, he worked as an editor at Odyssey Review, a literary magazine that published new literature from Europe and Latin America. He did some translations that were published in the magazine, and they led to an opportunity to translate Rayuela, an experimental novel by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. Rabassa’s translation, Hopscotch, won the first National Book Award for translation in 1967. Suddenly, publishers who were becoming interested in contemporary Latin American writing wanted Rabassa to translate their books. He followed Hopscotch with seven more translations in four years: Mulata and Strong Wind by Asturias; The Apple in the Dark by Clarice Lispector; The Green House by Vargas Llosa; An Introduction to Literature in Brazil by Afrânio Coutinho; Marks of Identity by Juan Goytisolo; and Bomarzo by Manuel Mújica-Lainez.
When Cien años de soledad became a literary sensation throughout Latin America in 1967, Cortázar told García Márquez that Rabassa should translate it. But Rabassa was too busy doing other books.
“At the time, I was working on the translation of Miguel Angel Asturias—the Guatemalan writer,” he explains. “So, Márquez had to wait about a year before I could get to his book.” Indeed, Rabassa will forever be indebted to Cortázar’s recommendation. He remembers him with a smile. “Cortázar was good, very experimental and particularly gifted and bright,” he said. “I got along with him really well. He was a translator and a teacher like me. We both liked jazz, and he played the trumpet. He tried new things in his work, and he was a visionary in his writing.”
Rabassa clearly enjoys the elite circle in which he works. The topic turns to Jorge Amado who left an indelible impression on him. “I always enjoy translating him,” recalling his translation of The War of the Saints. “Amado is a great storyteller, very folkloric in one sense. He’s also magical. He uses the African religion of the Orishas, which resonates a lot in his work.” Rabassa also translated Amado’s earlier works like Sea of Death, Captain of the Sands and numerous others.
Now that he is on the topic of Brazil, Rabassa discusses a rebel priest he has been thinking about for quite some time—for more than 20 years in fact. The man who has held his interest for so long is a 17th-century Jesuit named Antonio Vieira , one of the great preachers, writers and missionaries of his time. Rabassa calls Vieira the Henry Kissinger of the Portuguese empire. “He was a very combative priest who knew the king of Portugal,” he said. “The reason I was drawn to him was that he was an interesting character. He was the king’s advisor and statesman. And a very pragmatic man who was plugged into the realpolitik of Portugal.”
Rabassa chuckles. “Yet he had these crazy religious notions that the world was coming to an end. But he was a great orator and writer of his time, known throughout Portugal. In fact, in Brazil, he was a man who fought for the Indians back when it was a very unpopular cause!” Still not sure what form it will take, Rabassa said, “It could end up as a short autobiography with some translations of his work, and it might include some of his oratory sermons.”
Suddenly the conversation shifts to Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, the author of The Green House and Conversation in the Cathedral, as well as Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter. “I still think Vargas Llosa’s best novel is Green House: it was so natural; it just flowed nicely,” he said. “I see him on occasion; we had lunch last year. But over the years, he has become too slick a writer. He’s too self-conscious about what people think about him. But he knows how to put a story together.”
According to Rabassa, Vargas Llosa and García Márquez had a falling out, a literary battle that turned into a street brawl. “That’s when Llosa went to the right politically,” he explains. “And Márquez turned to the left,” remaining close friends with Fidel Castro. Just this past May at the Bogotá book fair, Vargas Llosa made a point of criticizing García Márquez, calling him “a writer who is a courtesan of Fidel Castro, whom the dictatorship holds up as an intellectual alibi.”
When he thinks about Márquez, Rabassa only has kind words for him. “He’s a very timid man, but he’s very brave when it comes to writing. He takes chances. I think he did pretty well for himself—he’s very popular in Europe, and he’s really popular in America.”
Despite his success as a translator and his advancing age, Rabassa still works two jobs, a harrowing pace he has kept up for 40 years. Translating never paid well. “Now the translators are making much more money,” he said in a disheartened tone. “I didn’t make a large amount money on those books of translations. Those books didn’t sell too well. And I don’t think the authors made much money back then.” He jokingly adds, “If you live like a hermit, you could live off the money you make as a translator. But you’d have to have your bowl of thin gruel every day.
“If you want to live a normal life, you can’t do it. In a good year, you might make $20,000.” So, by day Rabassa is a literature professor at Queens College, City University of New York. This spring, he once again taught English 110, Hispanic Literature in Translation, as he has for years. Why doesn’t this legendary translator pack it in and retire from academia? “I am not done yet,” he said. “And it’s the teaching of young minds that keeps me sharp. I believe I still have a lot more writing and translating in me. That’s why!”