Gregory Rabassa, whose masterly English-language translations of the works of Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa and other writers helped propel the Latin American literary boom of the 1960s and 1970s into an international phenomenon, died June 13 at a hospice facility in Branford, Conn. He was 94.
A daughter, Kate Rabassa Wallen, confirmed the death to the Associated Press. The cause was not disclosed.
Dr. Rabassa was teaching Spanish and Portuguese literature in New York when he was asked by a publisher to translate a 1963 novel by the Argentine writer Julio Cortázar. In 1966, Cortázar’s “Rayuela” was published in English as “Hopscotch,” and worldwide interest in Latin American fiction began to spread.
Cortázar recommended Dr. Rabassa to a friend, García Márquez, whose “One Hundred Years of Solitude” had been published in Spanish in 1967. Three years later, Dr. Rabassa produced an English-language version so skillful that García Márquez said he preferred it to the original.
The novel, which takes place near the author’s birthplace on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, helped define a style of writing called magic realism and became recognized as a towering masterpiece of 20th-century literature, selling more than 50 million copies.
The tone of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” — blending the mythic and the mundane — was established in its opening sentence: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
In a 2005 memoir, “If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents,” Dr. Rabassa described the nuanced choices that make up the translator’s art. He used “remember” instead of “recall” in the opening sentence, he wrote, “because I feel that it conveys a deeper memory.”
He described the afternoon as “distant” instead of “remote” because he didn’t want to conjure “such inappropriate things as remote control and robots. Also, I like ‘distant’ when used with time. I think Dr. Einstein would have approved.”
But the thorniest problem in the first sentence, Dr. Rabassa wrote, came in the phrase “to discover ice.” The Spanish verb “conocer” means “to know” and “just won’t do in English. It implies, ‘How do you do, ice?’ It could be ‘to experience ice.’ The first is foolish, the second is silly. When you get to know something for the first time, you’ve discovered it.”
García Márquez, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1982, called Dr. Rabassa “the best Latin American writer in the English language.” Dr. Rabassa translated five other books by García Márquez, including “Autumn of the Patriarch” and “Chronicle of a Death Foretold.”
Over the course of his career, Dr. Rabassa translated about 60 literary works from Spanish and Portuguese, including books by Brazilian authors Jorge Amado and Clarice Lispector and by four Spanish-language Nobel laureates: García Márquez, Vargas Llosa from Peru, Octavio Paz from Mexico and Miguel Ángel Asturias from Guatemala.
When translating a book, Dr. Rabassa seldom read it in advance: He simply turned to Page 1 and began to compose the English-language version, without knowing how the plot would turn out.
“I used the excuse that it gave the translation the freshness that a first reading would have,” he wrote in his memoir. “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.”
Gregory Rabassa was born March 9, 1922, in Yonkers, N.Y. His father was a Cuban-born sugar broker, and his mother a New Yorker of English and Scottish ancestry.
After his father’s business failed, the family moved to a farm near Hanover, N.H., and operated a country inn. Except for the occasional curse, Dr. Rabassa later said, “the old man didn’t speak much Spanish around the house.”
After studying French and Latin in high school, Dr. Rabassa went to Dartmouth College, where he said he “began collecting languages,” including Portuguese, Spanish, Russian and German. During World War II, he joined the Army and was assigned to the Office of Strategic Services, the wartime precursor of the CIA, as a cryptographer. He was stationed in North Africa and Italy, where he learned Italian.
He received his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth in 1945, while serving in the OSS. At Columbia University, he received a master’s degree in Spanish in 1947 and a doctorate in Portuguese language and literature in 1954.
He taught at Columbia from 1948 to 1969, when he joined the faculty of Queens College and the graduate school of the City University of New York. He taught courses on Latin American literature until his late 80s.
In 1967, Dr. Rabassa received a National Book Award for his translation of “Hopscotch.” He was awarded the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony in 2006.
His first marriage, to Roney Edelstein, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 50 years, the former Clementine Christos; one daughter from each marriage; and two granddaughters.
The primary aim of any translator, Dr. Rabassa believed, was to convey the author’s personality and to capture the imagination and energy of the writing, while making it sound natural and idiomatic to the second language.
“That’s what a good translation is,” he told the New York Times in 2004. “You have to think if García Márquez had been born speaking English, that’s how a translation should sound.”