Gregory Rabassa, a translator of worldwide influence and esteem who helped introduce Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Julio Cortazar and other Latin American authors to millions of English-language readers, has died at 94.
A longtime professor at Queens College, Rabassa died Monday at a hospice in Branford, Connecticut. He was 94 and died after a brief illness, according to his daughter, Kate Rabassa.
Rabassa was an essential gateway to the 1960s Latin American “boom,” when such authors as Garcia Marquez, Cortazar and Mario Vargas Llosa became widely known internationally. He worked on the novel that helped start the boom, Cortazar’s “Hopscotch,” for which Rabassa won a National Book Award for translation in 1967.
He also worked on the novel which defined the boom — Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” a monument of 20th century literature.
Garcia Marquez often praised Rabassa, saying he regarded the translation of “Solitude” as a work of art in its own right.
The New York Times once wrote of him, “If translators are the anonymous heroes of contemporary literature, its anonymous superhero is Gregory Rabassa.”
“He’s the godfather of us all,” Edith Grossman, the acclaimed translator of “Don Quixote” and several Garcia Marquez books, said Tuesday. “He’s the one who introduced Latin-American literature in a serious way to the English-speaking world.”
Rabassa’s other translations included Garcia Marquez’s “The Autumn of the Patriarch,” Vargas Llosa’s “Conversation in the Cathedral” and Jorge Amado’s “Captains of the Sand.”
In 2001, Rabassa received a lifetime achievement award from the PEN American Center for contributions to Hispanic literature. He was presented a National Medal of Arts in 2006 for translations which “continue to enhance our cultural understanding and enrich our lives.”
Language was a lifelong fascination for Rabassa, whose father was Cuban and mother from New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. He was born in Yonkers, New York, in 1922, and raised on a farm in Hanover, New Hampshire, near Dartmouth College, where Rabassa majored in romance languages. Fitting for the future translator, he served as a cryptographer during World War II, later joking that, in deciphering secret messages, it was his job to change English into . . . English.
After the war, Rabassa studied Spanish and Portuguese as a graduate student at Columbia University and translated Spanish- and Portuguese-language works for the magazine Odyssey. He broke into mainstream publishing in the 1960s when an editor at Pantheon Books asked him to translate Salazar’s “Hopscotch,” a stream-of-consciousness novel that had the Spanish title “Rayuela.”
Around the same time “Hopscotch” won the National Book Award, Garcia Marquez was finishing his masterpiece of magical realism, “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Rabassa’s reputation was so high that Garcia Marquez waited three years for the English version so that the translator’s schedule could clear.
“A good translation is always a re-creation in another language. That’s why I have such great admiration for Gregory Rabassa,” the Colombian author told The Paris Review in 1981. “My books have been translated into 21 languages, and Rabassa is the only translator who has never asked for something to be clarified so he can put a footnote in. I think that my work has been completely re-created in English.”
Rabassa’s contribution to “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was sealed immediately through what became the novel’s immortal, English-language opening sentence: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”
As Rabassa recalled in his 2005 memoir “If This Be Treason,” several words needed interpretation. “Firing squad” could have easily been translated into “firing party,” but Rabassa thought “squad” a better word for American readers. He acknowledged getting some criticism for turning the Spanish word “conocer,” which technically means to be familiar with or to have experienced, into “discover.”
“What is happening here is a first-time meeting, or learning,” Rabassa explained.
Even translating the title, “Cien Anos de Soledad,” required precision and poetry. “Cien” can mean “one hundred” or “a hundred.” Rabassa decided on “one hundred,” because he believed Garcia Marquez had a specific time frame in mind. A choice also was needed for “soledad,” which can mean “loneliness” or “solitude.”
“I went for ‘solitude’ because it’s a touch more conclusive and also can carry the germ of ‘loneliness’ if pushed along those lines, as Billie Holiday so eloquently demonstrated,” Rabassa recalled.
Rabassa’s approach was unorthodox. He would often agree to take on a book before having seen the text and then translate as he read it for the first time. In his memoir, Rabassa acknowledged laziness might have been a reason for not reading the book twice, but he also believed “by doing things this way I was birthing something new and natural.”
His work with Garcia Marquez made him famous, but he was much closer personally to Cortazar, the Argentine author and opponent of the Peron regime. They shared, Rabassa recalled, a warmth for “jazz, humor, liberal politics, and inventive art and writing.”
Friendship meant that Cortazar not only forgave the occasional error by his translator, but sometimes welcomed it. Rabassa remembered working on a sentence about an egg left too long in a frying pan and inadvertently reversed two letters. A correction was unnecessary, Cortazar declared. The mistake was an improvement.
And so, in tribute to the ceramic state of stale food, “fried eggs” remained “fired eggs.”
Survivors include his second wife, Clementine; daughters Kate Rabassa Wallen and Clara Rabassa, and granddaughters Jennifer Wallen and Sarah Wallen.