Me and My Circumstance

Ortega y Gasset famously defined the individual by saying "Yo soy yo y mi circunstancia" (I am I and what's around me). Although I may have said that I sort of backed into translation without having thought about it or having set my sights on it, I do have within me certain ingredients, innate or circumstantial, that could be said to have tilted me in that direction. Many far-flung genes have come to rest in my being, given the fact that my grandparents were born in four different countries: Spain, Cuba, England, and the United States. My Catalan grandfather married his Cuban-born niece and Andrew Maverick Macfarland of New York married Kate Mosley of the Manchester clan, although she must also be claimed as a New Yorker, having arrived here at the age of six or such. I'm never sure whether the pithy remarks she has handed down come from Lancaster or the streets of her adopted city. The Macfarlands go back a few generations; their arrival from Scotland is vague. Great-grandfather Thomas Mott Macfarland married Ann Maverick and although she was not of the cattle-breeding branch, many of her descendants have shown tendencies of an unbranded existence. These, then, are my genetic circumstances, which are coupled to a set of geographical ones that are equally piebald.

I was born in Yonkers, but they didn't fit so I moved away. What had happened was that my father, the Cuban sugar broker Miguel Rabassa, had married Clara Macfarland, the lass out of Hell's Kitchen, begotten three sons, and then lost his wad; almost all of it, that is. The big house on Park Hill in Yonkers, where true love had really conquered, was gone, along with one of his two Cadillacs and Charlie the chauffeur and his brother Rudy the footman. Fortunate for all, especially for me, was the fact that, land-poor now, my father had been able to hang on to his thousand-acre farm in Hanover, New Hampshire, four miles north of Dartmouth College. That is where I grew up.

The farm had a herd of prize Ayrshire cattle, a breed unusual in those parts, as well as the usual chickens, pigs, and assorted dogs and cats. The farm wasn't to last long, however, as it had been more of a show place than a commercial enterprise. The cows, horses, and equipment were all sold off, and with the addition of a large dining room the big house became the Villaclara Inn, a slight change in the name of Villa Clara Farm. At that point my existence settled down, just as I was turning six and starting school. The year was 1928 and we were soon to have many fellow-sufferers in relative penury. Some of the first bits of political terminology I learned were things like Prohibition (pronounced pro'bition), Depression, Hoovervilles, and Hoover tourists (hoboes). My father was of an adventurous nature and he dabbled in sheep, chickens, and even fried plantain chips, none of which took off commercially. He would follow the Market, as it was singly and simply called then to the exclusion of any other exchange, and mutter about what he could do if he only had a thousand dollars.

Both my parents were good word people. As a foreigner and especially as a Cuban one, my father not only had become fluent in English but would fool around with it as only someone with an outside vantage point could. My mother had brought with her the lingo of Hell's Kitchen New York and also her mother's colorful parlance, partly from Manchester but mainly from an older New York. As the youngest child of many, my mother had also learned a lot of terms and talk from her older siblings. Our childhood nicknames evolved into strange forms as the years went by. Miss Emma Macfarland, a maiden aunt and former schoolteacher who had become somewhat disarranged upstairs, had come to live with us and help out as best she could. She had her own terms of endearment for my brothers and me: Dootsus-Wootus was my brother Jerome (also known as Dito or Deet, wherein lies another tale of nomenclature), Obsty-Bobsty was brother Bob, and I was Gozy-Wozy. These became shortened to the first part and were taken up by other family members. As a baby my brother Jerome had evidently resembled someone on the Cuban side and had elicited the comment "dito cagadito" (roughly "the shit and image"). On leaving home he became Jerry to his friends but was still Deet to the family.

In a similar way I began as Geg or Gegs at home to become Greg on the outside. My mother always called me Gegs and my brother Bob knew me as Geg. Jerome later on called me Greg but he was always Deet to me. My best nickname evolved out of a radio show I would listen to. I was a great admirer of Indians and always their defender, most likely from my love of nature but also from a fascination with things exotic. It was Chief Wolfpaw's program and there was a club which I joined for a certain number of cereal boxtops, no doubt. I received a pin in the shape of an arrowhead with the spoor of a wolf's paw embedded on it. The club's password was Ho-wa-ho-so-wa-ka, which I would go about mouthing, to the amusement of my father, whose version mutated into Mahokey-mazokey. Uncle George Macfarland picked up on this and reduced it to Mazoke, a nickname he used for me to the end of his days.

Another Macfarland who lived with us after quitting his job as a letter carrier in New York because of a heart condition was Uncle Andrew (he never used Junior). In addition to the inn, we had a filling station and sometime lunchroom a quarter of a mile up the road on the bank of the Connecticut River. This was his realm. His nickname was Ayza, which for a long time I thought was just a voiced version of Asa. Much later I learned that it was a childhood epithet hung on him because he was given to telling people to "kiss me ayza." Here was another one who liked to play with words and had maintained his Hell's Kitchen accent all through his years of exile in New Hampshire's frigid Cocytus. It has been my observation that this so-often mocked and maligned manner of speech which, alas, can be heard today only in old movies is never the "foist" that bumpkins think they've heard, but a softer sound, more like the German eu with just a hint of the missing r. In this it is rather close to Oxbridge, except that it's much too bumptious to be mumbled as an indistinct "waffle-waffle" as Herbert Marshall might.

With all the diverse mannerisms of speech I heard around me, including the various differing New England ones, I developed what might be called an ear for sounds. I had fun imitating and perfecting these different accents, using them in high-school plays and just fooling around. Once I even passed myself off as an Englishman to a poor student teacher in one of our classes. All along I'd been curious about languages. My father had an Encyclopedia Britannica in one of those famous early editions. The articles on countries would include a section on language. I remember going through it trying to pick up a phrase here and there. Later on I was pleased to find that some of them were authentic, although others verged on the pidgin. Strangely, I didn't pick up much Spanish at home, most likely because my father spoke English most of the time, except when there might be a Cuban friend or a Spanish-speaking Dartmouth student about. José Clemente Orozco came by for some arroz con pollo when he was painting his famous murals in the reserve reading room of Baker Library (I remember hearing a tourist some years later inquiring as to where she might find the Orezco frescoes). My active ear was pleased no end with that malapropism. My father did use his Spanish when he was in need of an immediate expletive, however, and if he came to cut himself while working in the kitchen he would deliver himself of what José Rubén Romero's Pito Pérez called un carajo rotunda y retumbante. He would also curse in English, less instinctively reactive, however, and usually adjectival, like his favorite "God-dem."

Formal language training began for me in high school with Latin and French, the only ones offered. In college I made an early switch in majors from chemistry/physics to Romance languages, starting Spanish and continuing French. I soon developed into a language collector with my first course in Portuguese with good Joe Folger, who had picked it up early from fishermen on his native Nantucket. As I was about to start German the Soviet Union was invaded and Russian was offered as a wartime option. I put off German until after the war at graduate school. I guess I hadn't spent all my class time gazing at lovely Miss Alma Whitford, fresh out of Mount Holyoke, as she taught us to construe Caesar, because later on when I did more Latin in graduate school, what I had thought had disappeared was still there and in pretty good shape. I sat in on George Woods's Italian class and his Dante course, which would later serve me when I got to Italy. In Naples I found a splendid edition of the Commedia which would follow me up the peninsula and help me build up my Italian and get rid of Spanish and Portuguese intruders.

All through school and college I was doing translation, as it was an important ingredient in language study in those days. It was a valuable exercise in building up vocabulary, especially at that early age when the brain's powers of retention were still strong. Old traditions still held because when I brought home my first French textbook, Le Nouveau Chardenal, my mother remarked that she had used that same book in high school. I wonder where they got off calling it nouveau. In those early days I was also well served by my ear for sounds. I had started piano lessons but never got beyond Diller/Quail, to my father's probable disappointment, although he never expressed any. On a Boy Scout camporee I'd tripped and broken a wrist and when the cast came off I never went back to the piano. Ever since, I've been limited to the role of listener, even though a rather avid and earnest one. Many years later, however, as a kind of recompense, I couldn't resist a bugle sitting in the window of an army-navy store in Saratoga Springs. I can now blow a semblance of the cavalry charge as well as Gunga Din's warning call, complete with the descending fadeout. I have since toyed with the idea of composing a Call for Papers to go with all those notices one gets for impending academic conferences. In the woods, where I spent some of my happiest times with my dogs, I got to recognize bird calls and could even imitate some. I was also pretty good at reproducing barnyard sounds. My cock's crow was much more authentic than either the English cock-a-doodle-doo or the Spanish qui-qui-ri-qui, both of which show the essential impossibility of translation.

Words and names were all around me. I had private nicknames for people which I never expressed or revealed because their accuracy might be taken for cruelty or disdain, which it was not. I would also look at the structure and window arrangement of houses, giving them faces and making them, to my mind's eye and ear, speak the names of their owners. This seemed so foolish that I never mentioned it to anyone. The private sphere we inhabit is largely secret, else we would reveal it more often. My feeling is that this may hold the deepest instincts we put to use when we translate, before we lard it over with reason and its concomitant rational attributes. These latter, of course, are absolutely essential to our craft, yet, as in life itself, a balance must be maintained. I might be the last one ever to sense or seek out any mystical urges this side of the Singularity, but the foolish and yet positive inclinations of our mysterious mental ways must be followed. I think that these seemingly somnambulistic musings of my early years have been good for my application of thought to language and from there, in reverse, to the language and thought of someone I have been translating.

My dabbling in languages in college came to a halt when the reserves were called up and I went into the army. Before that I had been interviewed by Bob Lang, an alumnus and former factotum at Dartmouth, for an organization called the Office of Strategic Services, of which I had never heard, as befitted its secret nature. I was told, along with several others, that we should let him know when we were activated and he would have us transferred to Washington. The next stop after call-up was the reception center at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, where we would await assignment to other duties and training. Bob Lang was notified, but nothing happened. As time went on, people from our group were being shipped out until by some queer quirk or reason my college roommate Al Hormel and I were the only ones left. Duty at Devens was not particularly strenuous as we went about various chores at the base, and I picked up army expressions and ways, most of which were not particularly noble or ennobling. It did much for my contemporary vocabulary, however, and it was also a badge of tribal separation from the alien civilian world on the outside, whose inhabitants would come to be known as "Goddamned civilians." I could never enter the lodge-brother spirit of this as I still felt myself a member of that outside world, one who'd been hijacked out of it. Only after basic training (we didn't call it boot camp, it was "basic") did I feel myself a natural-born soldier.

There were two types of parlance that I encountered in the army. The first was official military-speak, which to my still-civilian ear seemed backwards and silly, as in "gloves wool olive drab." The second was soldier-speak, much more colorful and inventive, such as the embellishment "buck-ass private," and all the many FU's, some of which like SNAFU have passed into general speech, although there are those today like many of my young students who haven't the foggiest idea of what it stands for. I remember the posted outcome of some court-martial proceedings that combined the two aspects into a delightful linguistic merger. It seems that a soldier had been brought up on charges of insubordination and the specific charge said in part: "... and upon being reprimanded by Sgt. [So-and-So] did call Sgt. [So-and-So] a mother-fucking son-of-a-bitch or words to that effect." The intriguing problem is trying to ascertain what other words might have had that same effect.

Al and I were finally sent off to Camp Fannin, Texas, where we underwent infantry basic three successive times. The rigors of this were such that Bob Lang in Washington was in receipt of fervent pleas. He had commented that we had been chosen because of our cryptic minds. We wired him that those cryptic minds were going fast and to get us out of there. At long last orders were cut for our transfer to OSS Washington. Al Hormel was in charge of our two-man delegation because his name preceded mine in the alphabet. Among his instructions were thoroughgoing ones that detailed how to dispose of the remains of any member who might have succumbed en route.

In Washington we were assigned to the message center to learn cryptography in all its various phases. Here was another experience in language, albeit an artificial one. This brought to mind the figure of Pete Weston, a classmate and another language collector. Not satisfied with all the foreign tongues he had gathered in and learned well, Pete invented one of his own. As I think about it now I feel that it could be the basis for a test in translation. Why not make up your own language and then translate something from it into your native tongue, faithfully and making note of all difficulties you might come across? Then you could reverse the process and see if your new language is adequate for the translation of your native tongue. This reminds us of the fun you can have trying to translate mysterious languages: pre-Rosetta hieroglyphics or those strange runes inscribed on New York streets by Con Edison to pass on some arcane instructions telling wire crews where dig they must.

Our cryptographic work was rather elementary, consisting essentially in the decoding of incoming traffic and the encoding of the outgoing. We even had machines to do our work for us, as Billie Holiday used to sing, but it was a bit more than pushing the button on the wall. A typewriter was connected to a machine with rotors and this Big Bertha, as we called it, would decode five-letter groups which would then be typed out in clear text on the automatic typewriter. The process could be reversed as the rotors were changed and adjusted for security.

Not too long afterward I was posted to Algiers, still in the company of Al Hormel. The transfer gave me a chance to practice my French, but I never had a chance to learn any Arabic or Berber because the French maintained a fairly thorough though unofficial form of apartheid. I did get to speak some Spanish, however, with veterans of the Spanish Civil War who were living as refugees in the Bab-el-Oued district, some of whom worked in our mess tent. It was in Algiers that I began translating in a different sort of way. At that time our agents in the field were using a primitive double transposition cipher for their message. We called it DT. This system was simply a rearrangement of the letters in a message according to a set of indicators that could be carried in the head, usually a literary quotation. If the clear text of this system were to get out, the whole arrangement would be in danger. Before leaving the message center, therefore, the clear text of the message had to be rewritten, paraphrased, as we called it. This meant, in other words, translating from English into English.

So there I was, doing what I would be doing years later, not aware that I was already doing translation. As they would say today, the parameters were narrow. You didn't have the option of simply reworking the word order; the same letters would still be there. Sometimes it was hard to find good synonyms. There are words that have none and can't be resaid in some roundabout way. This was especially true if the message concerned order of battle, as so many did. A regiment had to be a regiment, a division a division, and their identifying numbers had to remain the same. Paraphrasing has something quite devious and even dishonest about it, like anything that has to do with intelligence and counter-intelligence. Might not this be the way with translation as well?

As Fifth Army advanced so did the 2677th Regiment OSS (Prov), from Algiers to Caserta, Italy, and thence to Rome near war's end. After the German surrender in Italy, which was largely an OSS matter (Operation Sunrise, why I don't know), people were being shipped home on their way to the Far East, my old comrade Al Hormel among them. As I had become message-center chief by then I stayed on, with no more war and all of Italy and a fair-sized motor pool at my disposal. It was then that I became a tourist, revisiting with more leisure places I had visited under less inviting circumstances. I also read my Dante and other items picked up along the way, honing my self-taught Italian to a passable fluency.

All this could have been called preparation for what I would be doing later, translating. Had I begun with such a far-sighted aim in mind I would have done ever so many things differently and might have ended up a knee-jerk, pedantic, post-modern craftsman. It was my good fortune, therefore, to have been left adrift in my circumstances, picking things up in an offhand way, a fun-loving Rover Boy (Tom, if memory serves) in the natural scene, what some might call the modernist incarnation of reality. There, then, is the explication of my translating.

From If This Be Treason: Translation and its Dyscontents: A Memoir, forthcoming from New Directions. Copyright © 2005 by Gregory Rabassa. Published by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.