Image: Gregory Rabassa. Photograph taken by his daughter Clara Rabassa.
Daniel Shapiro, a Distinguished Lecturer at The City College of New York, CUNY, and editor of Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, remembers renowned translator Gregory Rabassa, who passed away on June 13, 2016. You can read an excerpt from Gregory Rabassa’s memoir If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents in the March 2005 issue of Words without Borders.
How to mourn a man who in our collective consciousness remains ever-present and therefore could never disappear? A man at once a legend and one of the humblest individuals I (and no doubt many others) have ever met? How to reconcile the passing of someone whose words and work are so alive and potent through his translations, essays, and interviews, and through the memory of his affable presence?
These and other thoughts pass through my mind as I contemplate the loss earlier this week of the great Gregory Rabassa, the Don of Latin American literature in English translation, as it were, but also in many ways a compass point of that tradition, given that his translations serve as markers for the reception of Latin American literature in this country, beginning with his renderings of works by many of the giants of the Boom. His accomplishments are legion: his renowned translations of such masterpieces as Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (which the author himself famously praised as “better than the original text” [my paraphrase]), Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (winner of the National Book Award), José Lezama Lima’s Paradiso, Machado de Assis’s The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (whose eponymous narrator speaks from beyond death), and Mario Vargas Llosa’s Conversation in the Cathedral, as well as works by Jorge Amado, Miguel Angel Asturias, Clarice Lispector, Luis Rafael Sánchez, and so many others; his acclaimed literary memoir If This Be Treason; and all the major literary awards he received from PEN, the National Endowment for the Arts (the National Medal of Arts), and the list goes on and on.
I had the incredible good fortune to have met and worked with Gregory Rabassa through my position at the Americas Society, where for many years I directed the Department of Literature, a position that included editing Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas, the major US forum for Latin American writing in English translation. Greg was a regular contributor to Review long before my time, but during my collective tenure (1985-2015), he not only contributed regularly to Review—providing translations of some of his favorite authors, such as Vinícius de Moraes and Nélida Piñon; writing book reviews of works by young Latin American writers; and in turn, having his own publications reviewed, including his memoir and translations (most recently, of Jorge Amado’s The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray and The Discovery of America by the Turks)—but also actively served as a distinguished member of the magazine’s editorial advisory board along with Mario Vargas Llosa, Antonio Benítez Rojo, and others. What a pleasure to hear him expound at our meetings, albeit in his modest way, on a host of topics that helped us conceptualize and shape respective issues of Review, to hear his colorful anecdotes not only about literature (e.g., his experience dancing with Marlene Dietrich during WWII), and to revel in his charming personality, which often disguised his profundity or, better yet, slyly tossed it off so understatedly, capped off with his signature grin.
Aside from collaborating with Greg on Review, I had the privilege of presenting him in various public literature programs over the years, mostly involving Brazilian literature. These included a panel on Portuguese-language translation, along with translator Clifford Landers and others; a conversation with Nélida Piñon on the occasion of the publication of her novel Voices of the Desert; at least two presentations on Clarice Lispector; and a memorial event for his fellow translator and friend Alastair Reid. In all of these, Greg was profound, illuminating, personal, and, I might add, always incredibly gracious throughout the respective planning processes and gatherings following the events. It was always a treat to share conversation with him and his wife Clementine in the famous Incas Room prior to the programs, and afterward at the receptions in the Mexican Room, and at local restaurants such as Cognac and Barbaresco over delicious French or Italian meals and, of course, many toasts.
As many have noted admiringly, his finely wrought translations effect the magic of alchemy, reading like original texts, not translations from other works, and his comments on translation deliver their truths in plainspoken English injected with a dose of common sense. I’ve had the opportunity to quote him in various lectures and presentations. The best anecdote that comes to mind concerns his translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude, when a journalist confronted him with the question of whether he knew enough Spanish to translate such a masterwork. He answered by commenting that the journalist had asked him the wrong question. The question should have been, “do you know enough English,” thereby underscoring that an effective translation demands a translator’s fluency and inventiveness in the language he or she is translating into since the finished product must read like a work written in the new language.
So let us remember the great Gregory Rabassa, as both man and intellectual, and take comfort, even rejoice, in the fact that like Machado de Assis’s beloved Brás Cubas, he’ll continue instructing and inspiring us, and no doubt laughing with us, from beyond the grave.