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Rabassa for Ever

Gregory Rabassa, still active at ninety-one, is a living legend. He translated the work of three Nobel Prize winners and played a major role in the Latin American boom; The New York Times Book Review called him a superhero of translation. Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez said, “He is the best Latin American writer in the English language.” Here we have an exclusive interview with Rabassa from his home in New York.

By: R. M. Koster y Guido Bilbao
Photos: Javier Pinzón

Sometimes we all need a coyote, someone who takes us to the other side and help us pierce the shadows of our own blindness. In a sense, a translator is just such a guide, and Gregory Rabassa is the top coyote in Latin American literature. He introduced great authors to the English-speaking world as the translator of García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Asturias, Cortázar, Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, Donoso, Goytisolo, and many others.

From watching films, one has the feeling that one knows everything about New York, even the insides of the houses. This apartment on Lexington Avenue in Manhattan´s Upper East Side appears to be the refuge of a university professor, straight out of a Woody Allen film. Rabassa opens the door and greets us warmly. He is wearing sneakers and a pair of corduroy pants. Bookshelves cover the living room walls, filled with books, drawings, and manuscripts…The second shelf from the bottom houses his legacy. Every work he has translated, one after the other, in chronological order. In front of the window there is a small table, a chair, and a portable Olympia typewriter that Rabassa bought half a century ago. He had it modified to include Portuguese accents. On this typewriter, one can write in all romance languages, including German. With this relic —the most erudite typewriter on the continent?— Rabassa built, word for word, the foundations of what we know as the Latin American Boom: literature that conquered the world once it was translated, and won three Nobel Prizes.

“If translators are the anonymous heroes of contemporary literature, Gregory Rabassa is its superhero,” decreed the prestigious New York Times Book Review. He received the following introduction before an audience at the University of Texas at Dallas Center for Translation Studies: “His critical and theoretical comments on the process and art of translation offer perceptive guidelines and creative insight for translators at all levels of experience.” Seated on a large sofa in his apartment´s living room, Rabassa brushes off the praise and says it must be for the authors; he does not believe he is worthy of his fame.

In your autobiography you say that from a young age you have been a collector of languages…

“Yes. Thank God I had an old fashioned education. In school, I studied Latin and French, at Dartmouth, Spanish and Portuguese. The studies largely consisted of translating; I do not believe students learn as many words now. Translating is about having a built-in vocabulary. During the Second World War, I spent two years in Italy and learned Italian. In Naples I bought a good edition of Dante that stayed with me during the campaign.”

Rabassa is a peaceful man yet he is proud of having fought in the war against fascism. Because he was a linguist, he was accepted in the military intelligence service to work in cryptography, translating under fire. The armed forces in Italy included British, French, and Polish, Canadian, Moroccan, Gurkha, and Brazilian units. In war’s inferno, the coyote found an unusual linguistic paradise.

Upon returning from war, he moved to Greenwich Village, which was in the midst of the bebop frenzy. The government offered to pay for the soldier´s education, so Rabassa enrolled in Columbia University. It took him ten years to complete his doctorate in Latin American literature. In 1955, he was offered a teaching position at Columbia and began contributing to Odyssey, a university publication. His job was to look for Latin American stories. The publication had no translators, so he would translate the stories he found. Then he got a call from a publishing company. “They wanted me to translate Hopscotch, an Argentinian novel by a guy named Julio Cortázar.” Destiny is happenstance: a year later Hopscotch got excellent reviews in the United States and Rabassa won, for his first job, the National Book Award for translation.

Had you read Hopscotch when you were offered the job? What was the process like with that first translation?

“I read the book as I translated it. As I progressed I sent pages to Julio who had a good knowledge of English. In time we became great friends. He visited us several times.”

Suddenly Rabassa moves an arm to gather momentum, rises and leaves the room without a word. He walks with slow determination. He enters a room and immediately comes out with a picture frame holding a series of color fiber drawings.

“This is a treasure that, for me, defines Julio even more than his literature. This drawing he sent us is a game with our daughter. Julio had a certain rapport with the kids: you could tell that they understood him. One of the stories is about a character, a girl the children perceive but adults do not see. The older ones say that they have made up an imaginary playmate. But at the end of the story, the narrator can see the girl, like the kids do. That is Julio: someone who sees what children can see and adults cannot. I translated nearly all of his work. Of all the Latin American writers I know, Julio is the most unique. He has something extra.”

After Hopscotch came Mulata by Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias, who won the Nobel Prize in 1967, the same year the translation was published. Then you translated García Márquez, who many years later also won the Nobel Prize.

“No. After Mulata came The Apple in the Dark, by the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, a woman who looked like Marlene Dietrich but wrote like Virginia Woolf. It is a good combination. I was busy with that when I received a call from García Márquez. He was referred to me by Cortazar and he asked me to translate One Hundred Years of Solitude. I said no, I was busy. But Julio convinced Gabo to wait for me. Gabo waited and at the end it all went very well.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a story written in a most particular rhythm. Was it difficult to translate such a significant literary work?

“It was one of the few books I had read before I was asked to translate it. I knew it was very good, but I treated it like any other task. Otherwise the translation would have been terrible. I translate the Bible in the same spirit in which I translate an economics textbook. Translating is a matter of habit. I only think about the job, not its implications. Besides, it’s fun. Gabo did not interfere very much. Instead, I consulted with a Colombian doctor friend who lived in Long Island for interpretations of some of the words.”

You also translated The Autumn of the Patriarch, for which you won the prestigious PEN award for translation.

“That book is written in prose that is, shall we say, breathless, no periods. The New Yorker was going to publish an advance selection and wanted to add periods and paragraphs to make it easier for readers. Gabo and the publishers agreed to the changes. Later they came up with another issue: the word ´shit.’ The New Yorker did not publish swear words and they asked to change the word to a synonym. They were quite puritanical. For me that was going too far, because ‘shit’ is one of Gabo´s favorite words. Besides, you cannot change ´shit´ to ´excrement´ without losing something along the way.”

And what happened?

“We refused. I found out they held a big meeting with the New Yorker’s publishers, the magazine’s editors and lawyers, all gathered around the word ‘shit.’ Finally, they decided to publish it. I believe that particular success was more of an honor for Gabo than the Nobel Prize. He broke the ‘shit´ barrier at the New Yorker.”

You said Gabo did not interfere with his translations, did Vargas Llosa? You translated The Green House and Conversation in the Cathedral.

“I think Gabo had read Hopscotch in English to see my work. He knows more English than he says he does. Unlike Vargas Llosa, who does not speak English as well as he believes he does. That is Mario´s personality. He learned his English from books; it is a Jesuitical English, ciceronian, correct, and exact. In other words, not appropriate for translation. Had I followed his instructions it would not have turned out so well. He is a bit austere, which is why he wanted to be president. He feels presidential. And I have a theory on why he lost. It was the vengeance of Fuji. In The Green House there is a malevolent character named Fuji, a Japanese-Brazilian…and at the end, he is defeated by another Japanese-Hispanic named Fujimori.”

Rabassa considers himself Brazilian by adoption. In the 1960´s, he was awarded a travel fellowship and spent it in Brazil. Over the years he translated Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector, Vinícius de Moraes, Lobo Antunes, and Machado de Assis. Brazil is the only Latin American country he ever lived in and in some ways, he never left, he says.

“When I arrived in Brazil my first impression was: ‘This is an immense Cuba.’”

Did you meet Jorge Amado on that trip?

“No, I met him some time later. We had a long correspondence before we met. I remember that after the first translations he wrote to tell me he lit a candle in my name to Lemanjá, the goddess of the sea in the Candomblé religion. What an honor! It is one of the nicest things that has happened to me in this craft. I met him later in New York, when I translated his last novels. He was quite open and jovial and he enjoyed life and its excesses, but he was also modest. In his novels there is a lot of activity, but he was a peaceful man who left these things for his novels. There is much more in Jorge Amado than what people expect. There is a certain profundity and depth. Brazilian intellectuals downplay him, but there is much more in his literature than what they see.”

In your autobiography you say that translation is impossible. How is it that you devote your life to doing something you see as impossible?

“That is very organic. Life as we imagine it is also impossible, because it is mortal. Now we are here, speaking, and we cannot believe that we will die. Intellectually yes, but we don’t feel it. And that is what translation is about. We believe that you can go from one language to another but, in fact, you cannot. The illusion is to presume that languages are alike.”

Then the translator is a coyote, a trafficker of myths?

“Perhaps. For myth is the word. The myth is the name, like the gods Apollo and Zeus. If I call Apollo Charley, the myth no longer exists.”

Can one speak of Latin American literature?

“Rodó, the Peruvian poet, had a poem about Latin America:

Here’s a thoroughbred Latin,

We call the fellow Mongo;

His father was born in China,

And his mother in the Congo.

The one thing that could, perhaps, define Latin American literature is that people can read themselves between the countries. There is the unity of the language but not much more. There is not really unity of language either, because in Brazil, Portuguese is spoken. “

Rabassa’s wife comes to remind us that her husband has a doctor´s appointment. Rabassa tells us to wait so we can all go down together. He puts on a jacket and a maroon beret he swapped for in Italy with a member of the British Parachute Regiment. He walks slowly, almost doubled over, crossing Lexington Avenue without looking back…like a platoon leader, like a coyote.