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Of all literary professions, is there a bigger contradiction in terms than the celebrity translator? A good translation, like good film editing, should be unnoticeable. If it draws too much attention to itself (Pope’s Homer, Nabokov’s Pushkin), critics will accuse the translator of serving his ego at the expense of the original.
Mierda, says Gregory Rabassa. He’s made a career of throwing such conventional wisdom out the window, and he’s one of the very few who get marquee billing on book covers. He staked his reputation on untranslatable novels: Gabriel García Márquez’s punctuation-averse The Autumn of the Patriarch, José Lezama Lima’s Proustian myth Paradiso, and the Puerto Rican Ulysses, Luis Rafael Sánchez’s Macho Camacho’s Beat. If this be treason, as the title of Rabassa’s memoir posits, the betrayed loved it. García Márquez has often said he prefers Rabassa’s version of One Hundred Years of Solitude to his own. Julio Cortázar, a translator himself, sometimes changed his original text to better fit Rabassa’s English. Many credit Rabassa with bringing the loosely defined Latin American “boom” to English-speaking readers. But if the boom exists as a literary movement at all, it’s mostly thanks to him: About the only thing Mario Vargas Llosa, José Donoso, Juan Goytisolo, and the above-mentioned boomers have in common is Rabassa. Oh, did I mention he’s also translated Jorge Amado and a dozen other Brazilian and Portuguese authors?
The Yonkers-born son of a Catalan-Cuban sugar broker, Rabassa knew eight languages by the time he left grad school. He served as an army cryptographer during World War II. His big break was Cortázar’s Hopscotch, a Choose Your Own Adventure avant la lettre with occasional lapses into Gliglish, an invented language. One might have expected Rabassa to explain how he did it. Though he discusses names, addresses, and titles, he reveals few details of his technique, save for the occasional bombshell. He rarely finishes reading a novel before starting to work on it. He admits he’s “too lazy to read the book twice.” He considers translation “unteachable,” although he’s “amused at the idea of a theory concerning something I do in a completely untheoretical way.” Instead, he approaches his book as he would someone else’s, instinctively, making things up as he goes along. Inevitably the results invite comparisons to his own translations, which by his own assessment feel fresh, new, and natural—if he does say so himself.