Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the Nobel Prize for literature yesterday, "says he likes his books better in English than in Spanish," according to his English translator, Gregory Rabassa.
Rabassa, who has been the principal English translator of Garcia Marquez's books since the early 1970s, has played a substantial role in making the Colombian novelist an international figure. But they did not meet until long after they had become literary partners.
"He was in Europe and I was here when I was working on 'One Hundred Years of Solitude,' " Rabassa said yesterday in a phone conversation from his home on Long Island, "so we didn't meet until after 'One Hundred Years' was out. For a long time, he couldn't come to this country; he was blacklisted. Finally, there was some reason he had to come to New York and they couldn't keep him out; he was speaking at the UN or something, and that was when we met."
Rabassa, who has just finished his 25th translation from Spanish and Portuguese, earns his living teaching at Queens College and the graduate school of the City University of New York, where a master of arts program in translation is being established. "You can't make a living at translating," he says, "not unless you do pharmaceutical catalogues or something like that. Then you can make a living, but not on literature."
At first, his translations were done for a straight fee, but now (following a model translators' contract established by the international writers' organization, PEN) he usually gets a percentage of royalties. This is probably significant for a writer like Garcia Marquez, who has spent a few weeks on English-language best-seller lists--a rare distinction for foreign writers. "For magazine rights," he said, "they usually pay the translator about 10 percent of royalties; otherwise it varies depending on whether it's hardcover, paperback, residual, etc." One moderately lucrative sideline is lecturing on Garcia Marquez, which he is invited to do fairly often.
Rabassa will not get a percentage of the $157,000 Nobel award. Does he wish there were also a Nobel for translation? Yes, he does. Garcia Marquez is actually his second Nobel prize-winner; he has also translated Miguel Angel Asturias, who won the prize in 1967.
Rabassa began translating professionally in 1966 with a book by Argentine surrealist novelist Julio Cortazar, and he was busy on another project when the suggestion was first made that he should translate "One Hundred Years of Solitude." "Cortazar, who is a very good friend of Garcia Marquez, told him that I would be worth waiting for," he recalled yesterday, "so Garcia Marquez waited and that was how we began."
He finds Garcia Marquez easier to translate than some other writers, although he describes the Colombian's English as only "adequate." "I think he feels uncomfortable in English," Rabassa said. "He reads it, of course, but I wouldn't say he is fluent--not as fluent as Cortazar."
"He's fun to translate," Rabassa said. "I find that when I like a book it's easy to translate. Once in a while, I make a mistake in judgment and agree to translate a book that I don't like; then it's a chore. Garcia Marquez is so good in Spanish that all you have to do is follow him and you get a good translation; it goes easily into normal, understandable English. I do have problems with Cortazar when he starts playing with words, using puns and that sort of thing, but his English is so good that he can help with that. When he becomes abstruse in Spanish, I just make him abstruse in English; it's not my job to simplify him."
Garcia Marquez is also easy to work with. "I have had no disagreements with him," Rabassa said. "I have found very few passages where I needed his help. Occasionally, I would ask him about something, and sometimes there was a place where we might have to bend the meaning of the original a bit to make it work in English, and he would agree."
Rabassa says that the reader he has in mind when he translates is "myself. I try to make it understandable and to make it sound as good as it can for my own ear. It's more natural that way; you don't have to strain."
"Now that he has won the Nobel, he may be able to go back to Colombia he lives most of the year in Mexico . He has set up a publishing house in Bogota and published his last book there himself. He was already thinking of going back home because of the new president, who is a friend, or at least simpatico, even though he is a member of the conservative party and Garcia Marquez is a leftist; political labels don't always mean that much in Latin America. He was also a very close friend of the Panamanian leader, Torrijos. When Torrijos died in a helicopter crash, Garcia Marquez's ulcer came back after being cured for about 15 years."
The writer and translator have not spent much time together because Garcia Marquez has so much trouble entering the United States, Rabassa said. "When he comes to this country, we get together, but he has to have some kind of reason, such as an assignment, a lecture, an honorary degree, something; he can't come just as a visitor. If colleges invite him, he will usually come, because it's one way of getting into this country. He got an honorary degree from Columbia some time after 'One Hundred Years' was published, and that gave him a chance to come here and meet people."
Personally, he finds Garcia Marquez "very playful, with a great tongue-in-cheek humor. When people take him too seriously, he may be fooling them. He can't be nailed down on criticism because, like James Joyce, he accepts all interpretations. When someone comes up with an interpretation he never dreamed of, he will say, 'Yes, yes.' He sometimes puts his friends in his books as minor characters and plays little in-jokes like that. I haven't found myself in any of his books yet, but maybe I should look more closely."
He recalls one story Garcia Marquez told him that typifies not only his sense of humor but his curious psychology. "When he gave up smoking, he told me, it was 'like when a dear friend dies.' So he took a pack of his favorite brand of cigarettes, wrapped it in a ribbon, dug a little hole in his back yard and buried it, and every day for a long time he would go out and put a flower on the grave. He hasn't smoked since then."