Gregory Rabassa, 1922–2016


In Memoriam

Photo via New Directions

We’re sorry to learn that Gregory Rabassa, the translator best known for bringing Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude into English, has died at age ninety-four.

Rabassa, whose translations include Cortázar’s Hopscotch and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, was renowned for the care with which he introduced a host of Latin American writers to the Anglophone world. García Márquez praised Rabassa at length in the The Paris Review in his 1981 Art of Fiction interview


How do you regard translators?


I have great admiration for translators except for the ones who use footnotes. They are always trying to explain to the reader something which the author probably did not mean; since it’s there, the reader has to put up with it. Translating is a very difficult job, not at all rewarding, and very badly paid. A good translation is always a re-creation in another language. That’s why I have such great admiration for Gregory Rabassa. My books have been translated into twenty-one languages and Rabassa is the only translator who has never asked for something to be clarified so he can put a footnote in. I think that my work has been completely re-created in English. There are parts of the book which are very difficult to follow literally. The impression one gets is that the translator read the book and then rewrote it from his recollections. That’s why I have such admiration for translators. They are intuitive rather than intellectual. Not only is what publishers pay them completely miserable, but they don’t see their work as literary creation. There are some books I would have liked to translate into Spanish, but they would have involved as much work as writing my own books and I wouldn’t have made enough money to eat.

Rabassa’s work on Solitude brought a new respect to the art of translation and new attention to translators. “He’s the godfather of us all,” Edith Grossman told the Associated Press. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky cited him in the Review last year:


What are the peculiar satisfactions of translation? 


I could answer that by paraphrasing what Gregory Rabassa said in the first Translation Review interview in the seventies. Translators are the only ones who live in this place between languages, both as reader and writer. You move back and forth from being one to being the other, and you never stop. No one else is quite in that same . . . whatever it is . . . hiatus.

That 1978 Translation Review interview he refers to is available in full online, and it finds Rabassa dilating on his process, especially word choice and the dangers of ego therein:

I find that one great merit of Garcia Márquez’s prose is that it leads the translation along so easily. Quite often, on going back over something, I tell myself that this is the only possible way it could be said in English, and most of the time it is felicitous. I think that in most cases accuracy can be fitted into the proper flow by a careful browsing among synonyms. This is where the bilingual dictionary is a good tool, a good mind jogger. I would think that the problem of accuracy/flow is more evident in the translating of poetry and I have done very little of that, although I have edited quite a bit. It is with poetry that I find ore mischief being done to accuracy than with prose. In most cases it need not be so, but so often the translator is also a poet in his own language and simply cannot restrain his great bardic ego to the detriment of the foreign poet’s message. To sum up this rather hazy explanation I shall continue to be hazy by saying that accuracy, indeed, must be sought consciously, while flow is left to instinct or whatever else we want to call it. This would seem to be meat for the structuralists and some of their adepts have struggled with this question, but, as in the case of all soft sciences, their general theories cannot be applied in the laboratory, which is the individual translation itself.

Earlier this year, Paul Elie published an extensive history of One Hundred Years of Solitude that elaborates on Rabassa’s role. “García Márquez himself read One Hundred Years of Solitude in the Harper & Row edition and pronounced it better than his Spanish original,” Elie writes. “He called Rabassa ‘the best Latin American writer in the English language.’ ”