A word man from the word go

Michael Henry Heim teaches in the department of Slavic languages and literatures and the department of comparative literature at UCLA. He translates contemporary and classical fiction from a number of languages.

"IF this be treason," said that great American Patrick Henry, "make the most of it." Now another great American has breathed new life into Henry's quip. Translator Gregory Rabassa has made us a gift of innumerable Latin American writers, including Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar and Jorge Amado. Rabassa was the moving force behind the "Latin American boom" that began in the late 1960s and revolutionized our reading habits -- and our way of seeing the world.

Wherein, then, lies the treason? The treason is of a literary nature: It derives from the "Italian punning canard traduttore, traditore (translator, traitor)." No mean punster himself, Rabassa initiates the wordplay that makes its irreverent way through the book with the title ("dyscontents," playing on "discontented" and all the fashionable "dys-" compounds such as "dysfunctional," "dyslexic," "dyspeptic," "dystopia," and finally playing on the "content" or "contents" of a work of literature, even as the subtitle also calls forth the Freudian associations of "Civilization and Its Discontents").

Much as he argues against the notion of translation as a betrayal of the original -- and he does so with great gusto -- he is also perfectly willing to concede the point: In the end, what matters is not so much that a work comes through the translation process unscathed as that it enriches the culture it enters. Even if translation is treason to the original, he argues, we should make the most of it. Whereupon he reveals how he made the most of it.

Rabassa takes several tacks. One might even say that the volume, slim as it is, consists of several books. It is, as I have implied, an apologia -- a defense, not an apology -- for literary translation; it is a memoir, one boy's story, so to speak, of how he came to ply the craft; it is a rumination on America's literary culture; and it is an annotated reading list of Spanish and Portuguese literature in the form of short essays on each work he has translated.

The latter, which he calls "The Bill of Particulars," is separate from the rest of the book, but in fact one or another theme may turn up anywhere and each reinforces the other seamlessly. Although Rabassa's father was Cuban, he had a Yankee mother and grew up in New Hampshire. He learned Spanish -- as he learned French, Italian, Portuguese, and even some Russian -- by the sweat of his brow. But like all translators, he chose to devote his creative energy to the translation process not so much because he had several languages under his belt but because he was fascinated by language as such.

Rabassa traces that fascination from his first awareness of language, at the age of 3, to a stint as a cryptographer with the Office of Strategic Services (he volunteered for the U.S. Army at age 20, soon after Pearl Harbor) and, eventually, to translation proper. He also bears indirect testimony to that fascination in the rounded periods and rich, variegated diction gracing every page.

So strong is his sense of words that he relies entirely on what he calls his "instinctive way of letting them lead [him]." Not that translation flows effortlessly. In the discussion of Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude," the primogenitor of magical realism and the signature book of both its author and its translator, Rabassa lets us into his workshop. The novel's much-quoted opening sentence presented him with more than the usual number of possibilities in English:

"Muchos anos despues, frente al peloton de fusilamiento, el coronel Aureliano Buendia habia de recordar aquella tarde remota en que su padre le llevo a conocer el hielo."

His final version was:

"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."

Here are a few of his remarks from "If This Be Treason" on how he came to that version:

"I chose 'remember' over 'recall' because I feel that it conveys a deeper memory. 'Remote' might have aroused thought of such inappropriate things as remote control and robots. Also, I like 'distant' when used with time. I think Dr. Einstein would have approved. The real problem for choice was with 'conocer' and I have come to know that my selection has set a great many Professors Horrendo [his term for caviling critics] all aflutter.... '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."

There is also a lot of the jolly old soul -- or, rather, jolly old curmudgeon -- in Rabassa: He relishes parading his likes and -- especially -- dislikes. Nor is he averse to a snippet or two of behind-the-scenes New York publishing gossip. Even in the annotated reading list (the aforementioned "The Bill of Particulars," which he also refers to as his "rap sheet"), he never completely removes tongue from cheek. Yet it represents an insider's view that is available nowhere else, and everyone, neophytes as well as past or present Spanish majors, can profit from it. He has certainly sent me off to the library with a roster of promising names and works. (Perhaps this is the place for me to admit that I am a less than unbiased reader: I had a fine course in Spanish and Latin American literature from Rabassa while I was an undergraduate at Columbia University, and I was prepared for the readings by a course in Spanish given by his wife, Clementine, who makes appearances in the memoir sections as both muse and an excellent translator in her own right.)

The "rap sheet" tellingly contains more than translations Rabassa has published. It includes translations he has done on spec -- that is, out of love for the work, translations that are even now (acquiring editors, take note) seeking a publisher. I say "tellingly" because what has left the deepest impression on me after setting the book aside for a few days is Rabassa's unconditional and uncompromising commitment to a cause -- the cause of cultural mediation as represented by translation -- and the vitality that radiates from the prose of an octogenarian who has lived a professional life devoted to a cause.

Rabassa may never state it in so many words, but his account of that life is the best reason I can think of to recast the "translator, traitor" canard. Instead of "traduttore, traditore" may it now read, in honor of Rabassa, "traduttore, creatore." *

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