IF THIS BE TREASON
Translation and Its Discontents: A Memoir
By Gregory Rabassa. New Directions. 189 pp. $21.95
In this easygoing ramble through a distinguished career, Gregory Rabassa -- the esteemed translator of Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, Julio Cortázar's Hopscotch, and dozens of other modern classics of the Latin American fiction "boom" -- comes across as a charming (if somewhat garrulous) old coot. His style is loose and conversational, utterly without airs. He prefers digression to exposition, makes terrible puns and drops in repeated references to old jazz songs and even older movie stars. Rabassa also writes with striking honesty about his disdain for the New York publishing industry and his dislike for academic literary criticism. Such humanity and a sometimes contentious forthrightness are unexpected from an eminent, if retired, Columbia professor.
Though dubbed a memoir, If This Be Treason -- the title derives from the Italian catchphrase "Traduttore, traditore" (to translate is to betray) -- remains more scrapbook than book. It opens with some reflections on translation, follows with a bit of personal history, and then proffers a chronological "bill of particulars" -- two- to six-page essays on the 30 or so writers and books Rabassa has brought into English. Nothing here is really what you'd call profound, but much of it is excellent literary entertainment. Read these pages while sipping a Brazilian caipirinha, and you'll spend a fine and mellow evening.
Rabassa (born in 1922) grew up in New England, the son of bankrupt Cuban sugar broker turned innkeeper Manuel Rabassa and Clara MacFarland, a "lass out of Hell's Kitchen." Both parents were "good word people," and young Gregory picked up some Cuban Spanish at home, as well as Latin and French in high school. In college he majored in Romance languages, including Italian and Portuguese, and also studied Russian. In graduate school he added German. Rabassa is astonishingly low-key about his knowledge of at least seven or eight languages.
Portuguese, however, proved his greatest joy, and he wrote his dissertation on black characters in Brazilian literature. While a young instructor at Columbia in the late 1940s and '50s, he started translating stories for a literary review called Odyssey. Then one day -- at the dawn of the '60s, with Rabassa by now a tenured professor -- he received a phone call from Sara Blackburn, an editor at Pantheon.Would he be interested in translating a novel by the Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar?
"It was Rayuela, which was to appear in English as Hopscotch. I had heard of Cortázar but hadn't read the book. This didn't prevent me from accepting the offer. Still without having read the book, I submitted the two sample chapters requested. Both Sara and Julio liked my version so I signed a contract to do my first translation of a long work for a commercial publisher. It was the start of a career I hadn't sought after and the beginning of a beautiful friendship with the incomparable Julio. True to my original instincts (or perhaps my inherent laziness and impatience) and to the subsequent amazement of those to whom I confessed my hubristic ploy, I translated the book as I read it for the first time. . . . This would become my usual technique with subsequent books. I used the excuse that it gave the translation the freshness that a first reading would have and which ought to make others' reading of the translation be endowed with that same feeling."
This sounds convincing until Rabassa goes on to add, with disarming candor, "I have put forth this explanation so many times that I have come to believe it, loath as I am to confess that I was just too lazy to read the book twice." If that seems a little shocking, there's more to come: "It's my notion, loose as it might be, that when I'm translating a book I'm simply reading it in English. The further technicalities, many of which I have obviously missed, are taken care of by the copyeditor. These are the writers who will perfect the work." What, one can't help but wonder, are these "technicalities"? He continues: "There are translators who curse and demean the copyeditor, but I myself have great respect for her (I use the feminine because in my early days the copyeditor was most often a bright, young, hard-working, underpaid Smithie or Cliffie with the fresh glow of a major in English)." Some things haven't changed.
Soon after Hopscotch won the 1963 National Book Award for translation, Cortázar told Gabriel García Márquez about Rabassa, urging the Colombian writer to "wait for me when he was seeking a new translator for his novel and I was tied up with something else. It all seems to have worked out to the satisfaction of everyone, critics included." Alas, Rabassa mildly grouses, his payment for One Hundred Years of Solitude was a one-time fee (as was common then) rather than a cut of the novel's sales. He naturally finds it "painful, therefore, to see an old translation surging along while I sit here and calculate what I might have been hauling in had I done it last year. . . . As far as I'm concerned the book might just as well be in the public domain." He later admits that he has never been very good at "push," at selling ideas or projects to publishers.
Though García Márquez's work made the term magic realism famous, Rabassa here points to Demetrio Aguilera-Malta as "the great master of the genre," especially in his "defining novel," Seven Serpents and Seven Moons. He also sings the praises of the structurally complex Avalovara by Osman Lins, of the swinging Macho Camacho's Beat of Luis Rafael Sánchez, and of the Proust-like A Meditation and Return to Región of the Spaniard Juan Benet. These are all very good books, as I can attest, since I assigned them for review in Book World, where they were duly lauded by respected novelists and critics. But do they still find the readers they merit? Among other matters, If This Be Treason reminds us of the many Latin American writers whom we sometimes overlook because of the looming prominence of García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.
As Rabassa talks about the writers and books in his life, he grows ever more endearing. He clearly has a thing for the actress Sonia Braga, insists that he simply follows his instincts when translating, proudly proclaims that the only Web sites he's "logged onto are those maintained by our arachnid friends" and never lets up with the lame jokes: Speaking of the postmodern, he says, "I must consult my dog on this as he's an expert when it comes to posts." But Rabassa also counts on a certain amount of real learning in his reader. He may refer to Robert Frost's dictum about translation or Vermeer's patch of yellow wall but never actually tell you that the poet claimed that poetry was what was lost in translation or that the little patch of yellow in the "View of Delft" sent Proust into ecstasies. While on one early page he quotes a wonderful Spanish proverb ("The devil knows more from being old than from being the devil"), on another he brings on the villain from The Maltese Falcon. Kaspar Gutman is talking to Sam Spade: "I like a man who can go in either direction or none at all. You can't trust a man who's sure of himself. He's hard and brittle and runs the risk of falling apart on you."
In If This Be Treason Rabassa is anything but hard and brittle. He goes in every direction, finding his life marked by serendipity, his best translations based on instinct and his taste that of an old-fashioned reader -- one of those, he says, "who still like to turn pages." Happily, Rabassa continues to translate new work, often for small presses, even in his eighties. All of us "who still like to turn pages" should be grateful.
Michael Dirda's e-mail address is email@example.com. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.