I was nervous when I set out to interview Gregory Rabassa in his apartment on the Upper East Side, having revered him since I first read Gabriel García Márquez and Julio Cortázar in his translations as a teenager. But when I arrived at the apartment, both he and his wife, Clementine, met me at the door with such beaming smiles, I couldn’t stay nervous for long.
Rabassa, now ninety-one years old, has something distinctly elfin and mischievous about him and loves making jokes. He told me his favorite composers were the “three B’s”: Beethoven, Bach, and Basie. We chatted about the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that line the living room of his apartment—turns out he made them himself and claims it wasn’t difficult. Soon this friendly patter helped me get over feeling too daunted to speak to this man who is almost singlehandedly responsible for sparking the American love affair with Latin American novels, translating over thirty novels from the Spanish and Portuguese—enough of the greats to fill a respectable small library (Machado de Assis, Clarice Lispector, José Lezama Lima, Mario Vargas Llosa, António Lobo Antunes, Miguel Ángel Asturias, Jorge Amado, and many more). His many distinctions also include the National Book Award for Translation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Literature Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN American Center’s Gregory Kolovakos Award.
In his translation memoir, If This Be Treason: Translation and Its Dyscontents, Rabassa tells the story of his first forays into literary translation, when he was asked to serve as an editor for a literary magazine in the early 1960s and couldn’t find anyone else to translate the Spanish and Portuguese stories he wanted to include, so he sat down to do the work himself. Like his bookshelves, the translations came out well.
The Rumpus: I grew up reading your translations, so I’ve been grateful to you since I was sixteen or so. I’m so glad you wrote your memoir—it’s really good to read those stories.
Gregory Rabassa: Of course, the strange thing was, it’s not a memoir. They asked me, “Could you write a book about translation?” So I just wrote about my experience and what I thought about it. But memoirs are selling, so we called it a memoir, and I won a prize for memoir.
Rumpus: Isn’t it a memoir about translation?
Rabassa: I could understand it afterwards as such. The one thing I didn’t want to do was be theoretical.
Rumpus: Is literary theory not so interesting to you?
Rabassa: No. It’s so…unliterary. Un-artistic.
Rumpus: Was literary theory important in the study of literature back when you were doing your studies?
Rabassa: No. It was the old-fashioned literary theory. Not the postwar kind, not Derrida and the Frenchies. They had courses called “Stylistics,” but that wasn’t exactly the same. It was more, you know, how to write a sonnet, what went into a sonnet: the breakdown, and the different types of sonnets. But that was about the extent of the theory.
In language courses we would get some of that, too. I had an old language teacher at Columbia, this Spaniard, a refugee from the Civil War, who wasn’t teaching linguistics as much as philology. And [Frederico] de Onís, who was chairman of the Spanish department when I was there, was a Spaniard. He was very good because he flooded the country with Spanish refugees—teachers—and you know, the chairman at Stanford and Boston all came through to lecture. He also brought García Lorca over here, though it’s too bad he didn’t get him at a different time. Lorca’s brother, Francisco, taught at Columbia.
Rumpus: Was that during your time at Columbia?
Rabassa: He was at Queens College, and I was at Columbia. Then he went to Columbia and I went to Queens.
Rumpus: I know you also taught in the translation program at the CUNY Graduate Center. Did you found it?
Rabassa: Well, there were several of us who were involved. It was part of Comparative Literature. I think Burton Pike was involved, and Michael Scammell was, too, if I’m remembering right.
Rumpus: So students could come and study not literary criticism applied to translation, but actually how to do translation?
Rabassa: Right. As I’ve said, teaching translation is more of an editing job. You act as editor. But you can have fun with it. One of my favorite tricks was taking a page and having the first student translate it from English into whatever language he or she was working on, and the next one would translate it back into English and then into the foreign language, and we’d go around the room and compare the two English versions at the end, and it would be amazing how much survived. We’d try to analyze which ones were the words that survived and why—because they were older or common or maybe in the grammar, they were more necessary. Things like that were fun.
Rumpus: What a great experiment. Did you work with students who translated from many different languages?
Rabassa: Yes. I could read a good many of them, but that wasn’t the point. I thought the product was what we could work on. I trusted their knowledge of the language—and many of them were native speakers. But it was about how they moved it over. And then you could see the difference between a European translation and an Asian translation, and you could see the similarities, as well.
Rumpus: In your book about translation you write about how you think translations from Portuguese and Spanish into English should sound a little different because of the different languages.
Rabassa: There is that. Let’s see, if a Portuguese person is speaking English but with traces of his own grammar and style, it would sound different from a Spanish person, and you could spot where each one is from. Of course, they’re both Latin and on the Peninsula, which is cheek by jowl, but there are different sounds. When you hear Portuguese, if you’re listening fleetingly, it’s as if you’re hearing Russian, which never happens with Spanish. Because the Portuguese and the Russians share the open vowels and the dark “L,” the “owL” sound.
Rumpus: That makes me think of Clarice Lispector moving from the Ukraine to Brazil.
Rabassa: She was a baby when she came to Brazil. How much they spoke at home, I don’t know, or how much Yiddish, perhaps, I don’t know either.
Rumpus: It’s so amazing you met her. What a wonderful writer.
Rabassa: I got knocked down somewhere: in my book, I said that she looked like Marlene Dietrich and wrote like Virginia Woolf, and somebody said, “Sexist!” Ah, but to meet her. And I can do one better—I danced with Marlene Dietrich!
Rumpus: Was she a good dancer?
Rabassa: Well, we just ballroom danced, you know. It was during the war, when she was overseas. That’s a tale: “Dancing with Marlene.”
Clementine Rabassa: When did you dance with her?
Rumpus: He never told you?
Clementine Rabassa: Oh, probably he did, I have a memory thing.
Rabassa: It was at the Hotel Aletti. She was over there entertaining the troops. Everybody loved her, and she was a very good dancer.
Rumpus: I would’ve danced with her.
Rabassa: We had a lot of movie types and bigwigs in our outfit.  They threw her a party at the Hotel Aletti, just for us. That’s when she came over and said, “Sergeant, you’re not dancing.” And being twenty years old at the time, well… She was very charming.
Clarice was very nice. She had a terrible sickness, though. She had a fire in her house. A stove exploded and burned her beautiful face and she got the cancer after, which was very painful.
Rumpus: Something else I wanted to ask you about is translator community, because now there are whole groups of translators and we all go to the ALTA [American Literary Translators Association] conference. You know, we translators spend a lot of time getting together, commiserating, complaining… When you were starting out, in your generation, was there a community of translators?
Rabassa: ALTA was just starting then—I was one of the first members. In fact, they made me a life member way back when. And then there’s the American Translators Association, which was around before ALTA existed, but that has become almost completely business oriented now although they do have a literary section.
Rumpus: Did you critique the work of other translators and have other translators critique your work?
Rabassa: We’d do that at the meetings usually. A lot of what we talked about was always recognition, money, rights, royalties. I got screwed—you wouldn’t believe—the one where I got the big screwing is Cien Años.
Rumpus: I read that in your book.
Rabassa: I got a few hundred dollars, something like that. The Americas Society, which was then the Center for Inter-American Relations, was hosting Guillermo Castillo, a sculptor who ran the artistic division. He was one of the pioneers in getting publishers to do Latin American literature by paying for the translation. And what the translator got was, before royalties and all that, not that much. But it cost the Center quite a lot. They paid for Cien años de soledad. They gave half of the money to pay me. And then the book came out and ran away. Not a penny went to the Center. And Guillermo Castillo was very angry about that. But he kept on supporting translations. Alfred Knopf was very good because he saw to it the translator’s name was on the jacket.
Rumpus: Did you ever live only off translation? Would that have been possible for you?
Rabassa: No. I don’t think so. If you want to call it living. I would’ve had to grub for something outside. Or else I would have had to fight for it. And I’m not that type. I’m a subversive fighter.
Rumpus: When did you start being able to get royalties on your translations?
Rabassa: I really don’t remember. The sad thing is, I’ve been getting them ever since a certain date, but it hasn’t made much difference—it’s meant an extra cup of coffee. The one I like is Machado de Assis. Because he’s dead, I am Machado de Assis! I get all the royalties on that one. It’s a small check these days, but nice to have.
Rumpus: Would you tell me about your involvement with the PEN American Center in its early years?
Rabassa: PEN was upstairs from the Communists: Four Continents Bookstore on Lexington Avenue, where Lexington ends at Gramercy Park. The Chute sisters were very active—Beatrice Joy Chute and her sister Marchette, and the widow of Elmer Rice, the playwright, was secretary. Eventually they moved things, and the organization grew. It wasn’t nearly what it is today.
Rumpus: Was translation an important part of PEN’s mission at the time?
Rabassa: Joy Chute was very much interested in translation. She’s the one who got me into PEN and started building.
Rumpus: What kind of activities did you do around translation?
Rabassa: Mostly what we had to do was politics, literary politics. Getting the translator’s name on the cover. On the review. And also to have decent reviews of the translation. Not the jackass comments that they make about it. It’s always very nice when you’ve done a book and they say “fine sparkling translations of…”—not the way a translation should be reviewed. Or else they’ll do a Professor Horrendo on us and pick it apart.
Rumpus: “It was an excellent translation but he mistranslated ‘overcoat’ as ‘greatcoat.’” I hate to tell you this, but we’re still working on these very same issues at PEN today.
Rabassa: Getting recognition? Where’s the Nobel Prize?
Rumpus: The Nobel Prize for Translation? Oh, that’s called “sainthood.” You know, like St. Jerome.
Rabassa: Although Jerome made a mistake.
Rumpus: Are you going to get “Horrendo” on Jerome?
Rabassa: Terrible mistake. Hebrew doesn’t have vowels, so he got the two words mixed up. The word for halo and for horns, and he gave Moses the horns, and when you give somebody horns in a Latin country… That was fun. But it’s a nice translation. It’s a chance to show what can happen. A legend of its own.
Rumpus: There should be more mistakes in translation.
Rabassa: It’s like the battle about that title. Remember it was Scott Moncrieff who called Proust’s novel Remembrance of Things Past. If you look up Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 that he took that line from, you’ll see that what Shakespeare had done is reduce Proust to a sonnet, because the theme of the sonnet in many ways is the underlying theme of the book. And then they corrected it. You know, Professor Horrendo said, “In Search of Lost Time.” That’s wrong. A la recherche du temps perdu—he forgot the du. If it was “in search of lost time,” it would be de but it’s “in search of the lost time.” That particular lost time. So you can’t do that.
Rumpus: You’ve out-Horrendo’d Horrendo! This sounds like a Borges story.
Rabassa: Borges told his translator Norman Thomas di Giovanni: “No traducir lo que digo, sino lo que quiero decir.” And quiero decir in Spanish has that beautiful double meaning, which is where it means “I want to say” and “I’m trying to say.” “I’m trying to do something” means “I want to do something.” And of course, Borges is always trying to say something and never gets to say it.
Rumpus: That works in German, too.
Rabassa: We have a tape of The Longest Day—about the Normandy invasion—and they have the Americans speak English and the Germans, who are German actors, speak German! And it’s good to hear. The code word for the invasion was from Verlaine: “Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne,” and then “blessent mon coeur d’une langueur monotone,” and the Abwehr officer says, “Verwunden mein Herz mit eintöniger Mattigkeit.” The translation sounds good! And I asked a German friend, and he said they may have used a translation by Rilke, just used Rilke’s line instead of getting it translated. It sounds nice.
Some of the expressions in there are like German for the English ear. Some of the words sound so funny. The British were dropping dummy paratroopers down and they called them Gummipuppen.
Rumpus: Rubber dolls! That’s hilarious.
Rabassa: Gummipuppen! And there’s Fallschirmjäger [paratroopers]—
Rumpus: Fallschirmjäger’s a great word.
Clementine Rabassa: Shame on you, I heard that!
Rabassa: Oh, and don’t forget “böhmischer Gefreiter” [Bohemian corporal]. I think Hindenberg may have been the first to use that term for Hitler. It got used among the officer corps. Could it be the fact that he was trying to be a painter? Or that he came from Austria, which was Bohemia?
Rumpus: Germans don’t use “bohemian” in the artistic sense. “Böhmisch” would’ve just meant “from over there, from the East.” So since you know German, you can probably tell me how to translate the first sentence of Kafka, which I’m having trouble with at the moment.
Rabassa: Oh that’s the famous: “Als Gregor Samsa…”
Rumpus: “…eines Morgens aus unruhigen Träumen erwachte, fand er sich in seinem Bett zu einem ungeheueren Ungeziefer verwandelt.” I’m having a heck of a time with that.
Rabassa: Well don’t say “cockroach.” New Yorkers all say he’s a giant cockroach because that’s the insect of record in New York. It’s a monstrous vermin, but we don’t use vermin in that kind of way.
Rumpus: No. I need this nonexistent word in English.
Rabassa: You maybe have to work in the slang. When you call somebody a vermin, it’s “you cockroach,” but it can’t be “cockroach”—that’s too specific.
Rumpus: My fallback is “insect,” but it’s certainly not a perfect solution.
Rabassa: No, it has to have a negative, disgusting touch. If only it were an animal, it would be swine, but the German like swine so…
Rumpus: Can you tell me about a translation that gave you trouble?
Rabassa: There’s a novel by Lúcio Cardoso that I liked and started translating, Crônica da casa assassinada. Chronicle of the, and then I like Assassinated House, but it really means “murdered” because in Portuguese, “assassinar” means “to murder.” The assassinated house—the family you can tell are not the nicest family. But then of course there’s García Márquez’s book, and I feel that Chronicle of a Death Foretold has become cliché in English. And the interesting thing is that Professor Horrendo objected to “foretold.” And I’ve seen so much use of the phrase “a ‘blank’ foretold.”
Rumpus: But it was a good title. In Evil Hour is a good title, too.
Rabassa: Well, In Evil Hour is Milton. It’s from Paradise Lost, when Satan enters the Garden. It’s not the Bible, it’s Milton. I thought it fit just right.
Rumpus: You know, you wrote in your book—talking about the translation of One Hundred Years—about the word “discovered,” and it’s beautiful. It’s slightly the “wrong” word, but I think it’s the right word because it’s writerly.
Rabassa: Professor Horrendo found that one, too. I remember a seminar at the Grad Center with Lillian Feder in Comp Lit, and there’s some native Spanish speaker and they were talking about the translation, and he said, “No, no, not ‘discovered.’ It’s ‘to know.’” And I thought it’s a nice usage in Spanish, but you can’t do it in English.
The other, of course, was the title One Hundred Years, because Spanish is ambiguous. Cien años can be “one hundred” or “a hundred.” And I’ve seen some people referring to the book by calling it A Hundred Years but I opted for One Hundred because it’s more specific. It’s this hundred years. A hundred could be any old hundred years.
Rabassa: I don’t know whether it’s the style or the content.
Rumpus: I’m just reading the Jorge Amado books, and it’s just like this burlesque romp.
Rabassa: They were fun, and I liked Julio Cortázar’s stuff; his game-playing was fun.
Rumpus: Are there voices that come easily and voices that don’t come so easily?
Rabassa: Some voices I’ll work on, but I don’t really trust my feel for them. I’m not used to them.
Rumpus: Which authors?
Rabassa: Well, some because they’re just difficult, like Asturias. And there are others. Well, take the business with Clarice: can a male write for a woman? Is there a female way of speaking English? But I never recognized it outside of acting. Exaggerating.
Rumpus: When you say acting, is translating like that?
Rabassa: Oh yes, I think it’s like acting. Much closer than to writing. You’ll get the old classical translation and of course they were freer, but sometimes you read one version and you wonder if it’s the same poem because they don’t do the same thing. I think it’s acting because…well, particularly with dialogue, but then when you’re doing the book, you are García Márquez—you are playing him and someone else might play it a little differently, but it’s still Hamlet.
Rumpus: Do you ever speak aloud when you’re working?
Rabassa: Not to my remembrance. No.
Rumpus: Do you have to go through a lot of drafts to get the voice right, or do you get it and then have it?
Rabassa: Normally I just do two, maybe two-and-a-half. I go at it rather rapidly to get everything in English on paper, and then I go over it more carefully with pen and ink changing it—you can see that in the manuscript on that first page of…
At this point in the conversation, Rabassa went over to his bookshelf and pulled out a copy of Gregory Rabassa’s Latin American Literature, containing a facsimile of the first page of the translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Rabassa: That’s what the manuscript looked like.
Rumpus: That’s not that many corrections.
Rabassa: I say that was a good book because it translated itself. You know. There’s only one way you could say it.
Rumpus: Do you keep the manuscripts here?
Rabassa: No, they’re actually up in Boston. I have an archive at Boston University. These [a section of books on his shelf] are mine. I tried to collect the original, then the first edition, then subsequent editions. In the days ahead I’ll put all of this at the archive at BU. You wonder, why did I pick them? Well, they were the first ones that asked me. Howard Gottlieb, they named it for him. He was very good. Bette Davis is there, too.
Rumpus: At least there’s an actress!
Rabassa: I want to send in this thing, too. This little typewriter. It’s my old Olympia which has been across the equator several times.
Rumpus: It’s beautiful.
Rabassa: A typist wouldn’t like it because several things have stopped working, but I can work it for the rough draft.
Rumpus: And then what happens for the second draft?
Rabassa: Second draft I sometimes have to put a new ribbon into it.
Rumpus: Second draft you type all over again? From scratch?
Rabassa: Well, from the copy. Because there are a lot of corrections. And I’ll also make changes when I’m doing the final draft. Like here. I shouldn’t have done it that way, but I do it that way.
Rumpus: I wonder if computers have changed the way translators translate now.
Rabassa: I’ve never used one, so I don’t know. I used a word processor that my daughter gave me and I didn’t like to process.
Rumpus: Do you think that the quality of translations, overall, has gotten better? I mean, on average. Have our translations gotten better? Stayed the same? Gotten worse?
Rabassa: I think they’ve stayed the same. Maybe they’ve gotten worse because I think writing has gotten worse. But I don’t think there’ve been any great advances—except with the classics. I’m thinking of Bob Fagles, who turned out the three great epics. He’d been at it a long time.
Rumpus: I take it you’re a fan of those translations.
Rabassa: Yes. I was sorry I was never able to use them in class. And I like some of the others, Lattimore. There’s very nice coincidence between him and me in that, let’s see, we both went to the same high school, went to the same college, and also got honorary degrees from that same college. Dartmouth. But Richmond’s father was a professor of Chinese. So he translates from Chinese. And Richmond was a Classics major.
Rumpus: Who are the other translators whose work you most admire?
Rabassa: A lot of them are the poets. Oh, there’s one, David Rosenthal, who was my student at the Grad Center. He died so young. He did the first English translation of Tirant lo Blanc. It’s a Catalan epic. It’s the one that in the Quixote—it’s Cervantes speaking, of course—when they’re burning Quixote’s books the priest picks that one up, and he says, “’Oh no, this is the best of all works of chivalry.’” And it had never been translated into English. Although David said he got stoned when he went to Valencia, because he said he’d translated the book from the Catalan, and the Valencians claim that their dialect is not Catalan, it’s Valencian. But at that time Catalan was the same as Valencian.
Rumpus: You’ve said you see Asturias’s style as frenzied and fast, and so you didn’t want to use slow words in the translation. What, for you, are slow words?
Rabassa: Slow words, speaking right now, would be classical words, I think. They’re very ponderous in the English language. Latinate and Greek. In Spanish, they blend in quite naturally, a little better than in English.
Rumpus: From the way your different styles are so clearly marked as different, you’re obviously very conscious of the kind of language that makes the text feel a certain way.
Rabassa: There’s a musicality that underlies a book, and I think that if you can move that into English, you can catch it and you’ve got it.
Rumpus: Is your sense of what Amado’s style should sound like the same as when you translated him in the seventies?
Rabassa: I think so, yes. His Portuguese is very popular. He didn’t develop a style—he’s a little bit better of a writer now, more polished, but it’s his voice. I think he’s more natural now—he was political then. I think he was attempting to follow a line.
Rumpus: A party line?
Rabassa: He was being led by that. He lets himself go with the same stuff, but the language is better. Being a natural writer is—he’s a teller of tales! His last two books are tales. Like Chaucer. And of course, underneath it all you have a little touch of class sociology. But you get very lyrical bits too; his lyricism is quite popular. Songs.
Rumpus: You’ve taught translation for all of these years. What should I tell my students to help them learn to translate?
Rabassa: Trust themselves. And how does it sound.
Rumpus: You’re pointing to your ear.
Rabassa: Yes. How does it sound? I was thinking about that at one point. Translating by ear. It’s like music.
Images of Gregory Rabassa and his book collection © by Susan Bernofsky.