Listening to Gregory Rabassa, the translator’s translator

Gregory Rabassa is a legend among American translators. He’s responsible for bringing many of the most beloved works of contemporary Latin American literature into English -- especially authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortazar associated with the “boom” of the second half of the last century.

As the translator Susan Bernofsky put it in the Rumpus recently, he is the man “who is almost singlehandedly responsible for sparking the American love affair with Latin American novels.” So when I attended a gathering of translators Tuesday night at the Litquake book festival in San Francisco organized by the Center for the Art of Translation, it came as little surprise that Rabassa’s name came up more than once.

The poet Idra Novey, who recently translated the novel “The Passion According to G.H.,” by the late Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector for New Directions, invoked Rabassa’s name in discussing why the “right” word (i.e., the word that is the most precise translation of a word from one language to another) is often not the best word when translating poetry or fiction.

Novey drew the audience’s attention to a wonderful recent interview in the Rumpus, which Rabassa himself (he’s 91) speaks at length about translation issues with Bernofsky. The two translators toss around the words and sounds of German, Russian, Yiddish, French Portuguese and Spanish as they discuss Rabassa’s legendary career.

Translation, Rabassa tells Bernofsky, is at times more like theater than like writing.


“I think it’s like acting. Much closer than to writing. You’ll get the old classical translation and of course they were freer, but sometimes you read one version and you wonder if it’s the same poem,” Rabassa says. “I think it’s acting because … when you’re doing the book, you are García Márquez — you are playing him and someone else might play it a little differently, but it’s still ‘Hamlet.’”

Elsewhere in the interview, Rabassa recalls the small fee he got for translating “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” (no one had any idea it would be a runaway bestseller) and why “One Hundred” is a better translation in the title of Garcia Marquez’s classic “Cien Años” than “A Hundred.”

“I’ve seen some people referring to the book by calling it ‘A Hundred Years’ but I opted for ‘One Hundred’ because it’s more specific. It’s this hundred years. A hundred could be any old hundred years.”

Rabassa wrote a critically acclaimed memoir in 2005 called “If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents.”


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