Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that his novel One Hundred Years Of Solitude read better in the English translation by Gregory Rabassa than it did in Spanish. Marquez's novel is more than simply one of the greatest, and most popular, of the Twentieth Century. It opened the door for multiple generations of Latin American novelists to reach out in the world, and it ignited a spread of so-called 'magic realism' which had such a huge affect first in Canada and then in Britain.
Marquez waited three years for Rabassa to be ready to do his translation; he did so on the recommendation of Julio Cortzar. And I came to Marquez via Rabassa just as slowly, and also through Cortazar.
Cortazar originally became a sensation because his short-story 'The End Of The Game', was the source material for the film Blow Up. I remember finding the short-story collection, in an intriguing Vintage edition, but though I have been scouring my memory I cannot recall which of two motivations brought me to the book. It may have been because of the ferocious debate between two teachers at my high school over the meaning of the final scene on the tennis court ('the meaning is that there IS NO MEANING', one of them shouted, impressing us students no end). But it was more likely that I'd been struck by Paul Blackburn's marvellous long poem 'The Watchers' which I found in an old issue of The New Yorker I read in a doctor's office while waiting for my head to be stitched. I was seeking out Blackburn's work, and he had translated Cortazar's stories.
Either way, I moved from those stories to Cortazar's novel Hopscotch, a dazzling work meant to be read twice, the second time in a different order of chapters dictated by the author. Hence the title. It was baffling but engaging, and its translator was Gregory Rabassa. Even as a youth, with no knowledge of Spanish, I could sense the dexterity of the translation. Later I read an interview in which Rabassa commented that translating the book was 'fun', because Cortazar knew 'humour and pathos are really all the same thing, what should be called love, maybe.'
My copy of Hopscotch was a Signet book, but it led me to a relatively uniform series of Latin American paperbacks issued under Avon Books' Bard imprint, edited by a young Peter Mayer. Ironically, I still like the Signet Hopscotch better than Bard's. These were the days when imprints like Signet, Bard, Vintage, or New American Library issued classics and what would now be ghettoised as 'literary fiction' in mass-market editions that sat on the wire-racks of drug stores and newstands alongside potboilers, science fiction, mysteries and everything else.
They were cheap and portable and they opened new worlds to readers tempted to just a hint of adventurousness. Bard published One Hundred Years Of Solitude, and through them I moved on to discover the likes of G. Cabrera Infante, Alejo Carpentier, Mario Vargas Llosa, Marcio Souza, and Manuel Puig. Many of them were Rabassa's translations: Autumn Of The Patriarch and Chronicle Of A Death Foretold; Jorge Amado's Captain of The Sands, and Mario Vargas Llosa's Conversations In A Cathedral. He didn't do more with Vargas Llosa, partly, he told an interviewer, because 'his English is not as strong as he thinks it is'.
Rabassa chose his projects well. Simply looking for his name as translator would lead a reader to the discoveries of Miguel Angel Asturias' Mulata; Jose Lezama Lima's Paradisio, and Luis Rafael Sanchez's Macho Camacho's Beat. But I'm not sure of exactly how Rabassa could judge such things; he said that he translated as he read a work, rather than reading it first and beginning the translation afterwards.
Although one felt drawn to the exotic nature of Rabassa''s translations, his actual background was more prosaic. His father was Cuban, but he grew up in Hanover, New Hampshire. He studied languages at Dartmouth and Columbia, worked as a cryptographer during the war, taught at Columbia and at Queens College afterward. He died in the unlikely setting of Branford, Connecticut in a hospice where I am sure some members of my family's circle saw out their last days.
Rabassa wrote a memoir, If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents. Remember how he worked, translating as he read? You can see why it worked so well, because in the memoir he reminded us: 'The translator, we should know, is a writer too. As a matter of fact, he could be called the ideal writer because all he has to do is write; plot, theme, characters, and all other essentials have already been provided, so he can just sit down and write his ass off.'